TALLADEGA, Ala. – Brad Keselowski’s first experience in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory circle came in 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway – the largest track on the circuit, in front of the rowdiest fans and competing against a field filled with the biggest names in stock car racing.
He considers that April afternoon – surprising the field in his part-time gig driving for the smaller James Finch-owned team – one of the most pivotal moments in his championship career.
“That was a huge, huge win for me,’’ Keselowski, 34, recalled. “I think that first win put me in position to be with Penske. I don’t know if I would have been with Penske without that. That was huge for me.
“It opened up a lot of doors. I was able to get through them in a time period when they weren’t really handing out quality rides like they were candy. It opened up a door for me to earn it. I am glad to be here and I don’t know if I would be here if it wasn’t for that first win.”
Keselowski shows up in Talladega this weekend as the track’s winningest driver in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (2 p.m., FOX, MRN, SiriusXM Radio) field with five Talladega trophies total. But the 2012 Cup champion insisted Friday that each race at this vast venue presents a unique challenge and despite all the success he’s had, Keselowski figures he’s still got his work cut out for him this weekend.
“Maybe I have just been lucky five times,’’ Keselowski said, smiling. “I think there is a luck factor to Talladega that will always be there and there is a skill factor that seems to always be a moving target with different tactics and techniques based on the rules, regulations, and competitors.
“What it took to win here the first time is certainly not what it will take to win here this weekend. You have to adapt to that and that is a big challenge when you have something you are successful with.
“I would say that with the way the cars are driving so far this weekend it will take something completely different again to be successful here. I look at it as a fairly open weekend with a lot of unpredictability, even for Talladega standards. With that is an opportunity as well. We are certainly going to have to earn it.”
A win at Talladega this weekend would not just be another trophy to display, but a ticket into the 2018 Cup playoffs. Although he has five top-ten finishes and is ranked fifth in the standings, Keselowski is still winless this season. And so are his talented Penske Racing teammates Logano and Ryan Blaney.
That’s not to say the effort hasn’t been there, however. Keselowski has led a combined 118 laps in four races. Logano, who is ranked second in the points standings, has led 131 laps over six races. And Blaney, who is ranked eighth, has led a team-best 364 laps in four races.
And even if Keselowski wouldn’t go so far as to consider himself the odds-on favorite this weekend, the statistics certainly make a case for him and his Penske Racing team. Keselowski has won three of the last seven races at Talladega and his teammate Logano has two victories in that span.
“I think Talladega has been a good track for us for sure,’’ Keselowski said. “I come here excited and feeling like we can win and there is a lot to be said for that. It is the kind of confidence you need to have to run well here.
“Also we come here with pretty strong cars which always make your job a little bit easier. I think this year it seems as though the cars are quite a bit different than they have been in my history here. They are a lot faster and handling quite a bit worse.
“I told somebody today that I felt like I was in 1985 with the way the cars are driving. That said, I expect a little bit of a different race than what we have seen here. I am not really sure exactly what to predict but we are hopeful it will be a great day for us.”