by Aaron Burns
Every year, the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion becomes many pundits’ favorite to win the title, even though no one has won two straight in more than a decade.
This year is different. Chase Elliott is the defending champion.
He’s everyone’s favorite.
Elliott is so popular, there are probably more Chase Elliott fans than there are NASCAR fans. Other drivers, who didn’t win the championship last year, can also be popular.
Many people root for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Some even root for Denny Hamlin, who’s won three Daytona 500s but has yet to capture America’s heart or a Cup Series championship.
Where does Brad Keselowski figure into the equation?
Keselowski, if you recall, won the 2012 Cup Series title in only his third full season. He’s one of NASCAR’s most accomplished active drivers and, at 36, is an elder statesman of sorts. Behind the wheel, Keselowski is as spry as ever.
He made the Championship 4 last year in a performance that flew so far under the radar, it may as well have been underground. Keselowski won four races, posted 24 top-10 finishes and ended the year second in points after a spirited drive in the finale at Phoenix Raceway. The postseason attention, however, fell on Elliott for the title, Harvick for his nine wins and Hamlin for winning another Daytona 500.
Keselowski was the chopped liver of Championship 4 drivers.
Keselowski’s outspokenness has waned in recent years, so maybe that’s why the headlines rarely feature his name these days.
Even this story’s headline doesn’t feature his name. Sorry, Brad.
Keselowski, to his credit, doesn’t seem to mind the role of quiet contender. Joey Logano, Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate, seems to gather more attention.
When the chips are down, however, Keselowski is often the most competitive Penske driver in a race – especially at superspeedways, where Keselowski frequently runs well and has six wins since 2009.
Keselowski credits his competitiveness to, well, being a competitive person.
“I’m a really crappy loser,” Keselowski told media this week. “I hate losing. It makes me mad. I can’t sleep.”
It makes sense. Keselowski grew up in a household of racers.
His father, Bob Keselowski, rose as high as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, where he won a race in 1997. Brian Keselowski, Brad’s brother, has also competed in Cup Series races. Racing is the family business, and business has been good for the last few decades.
It’s all the more surprising, then, that when most journalists pick their championship favorites, there are the usual suspects – Elliott, Busch, Harvick, Hamlin, Logano – and there’s Keselowski off to the side or left out entirely.
Here’s a preseason prediction: Keselowski reminds the NASCAR world just how good he is at driving a race car.
Coming so close last season has made Keselowski even hungrier to win his second title. Keselowski will be refreshed and ready for battle when the season begins on Feb. 14.
When it ends on Nov. 7, he’ll sleep better than he’s slept since 2012.