Michigan’s Keselowski grateful for huge boost from retiring Earnhardt

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two more races at Michigan International Speedway, including the FireKeepers Casino 400 on Sunday.

Brooklyn, Mich. — Junior is reliably genuine.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has proved it to NASCAR fans across two decades.

Even before fate thrust an overwhelming challenge upon him, inheriting his legendary father’s mantle after his death on the track, he was their forthright hero.

Earnhardt announced in April he will retire after this season. He has two more races at Michigan International Speedway, including the FireKeepers 400 on Sunday.

Few have felt Junior’s considerable impact on racing more than Brad Keselowski.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., pictured during qualifying Friday, has 26 wins, 13 poles, 149 top-fives and 254 top-10 finishes in 609 races. He has won two Daytona 500s.

“Dale gave me an incredible opportunity, and I don’t know if I would have made it without him,” Keselowski said, assessing his career.

“I don’t know — but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.”

A decade ago, Keselowski, the only Michigan-born NASCAR Cup champ, lurked at the fringes of big-time stock car racing.

Not far removed from his dad Bob Keselowski’s racing garage in the Detroit suburbs, Keselowski drove a Ford F-150 for his family’s K-Automotive Motorsports in the NASCAR Truck Series. He also landed a ride with Keith Coleman Racing in the Busch Series.

In June 2007 at the Milwaukee Mile, Keselowski won his first pole in a truck, at age 23. In the race, he led with 10 laps to go, only to get spun.

A few days later, the phone rang.

It was Earnhardt.

The prince of motor sports asked the kid from suburban Detroit if he wanted to drive for him. The car was the No. 88 of Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports, “the United States Navy Chevrolet.”

And, oh, by the way, Earnhardt told Keselowski, if you need a place to stay, my home is yours.

Room and board in North Carolina amid the hub of NASCAR racing, with team offices and garages spread in the vicinity of Earnhardt’s home and headquarters in Mooresville, proved invaluable for the young driver from Michigan.

It was especially so, because he could walk around town with Earnhardt.

“I’m thankful for the support he gave me in the early days of my career, really the foundational days of my career, because he didn’t have to do that, certainly,” Keselowski said.

“It wasn’t something he had to do. It was something he wanted to do. And that means a lot to me.”

Earnhardt, seen in 2005, has grappled with concussions and post-concussion symptoms, helping spread awareness of the issue.

‘Real altruism’

A son of a legend participating in the father’s arena is a tough role. When the legend is vanquished by tragedy, the role is consecrated.

For season after season, events also cast Earnhardt in a huge role for NASCAR.

His performance has been flawless.

Through it all, and especially since the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt, in a wreck against the retaining wall on the last lap of the 2011 Daytona 500, Junior has been Junior. At 42, he remains seemingly egoless. Wise, and without guile.

Brad Keselowski, with daughter Scarlett, credits Earnhardt with helping him find his footing early in his career.

And when they were both younger men, he saw a lot in Keselowski.

“I think it means a lot to everyone when someone does something for you that they don’t have to do, and they’re not expecting anything in return,” Keselowski said. “That’s real altruism.

“And his ability to show that means the world to me, and to a lot of others in the motor sports world.”

It is just one reason why they were at each other’s weddings, over the offseason.

Earnhardt has grappled with concussions and post-concussion symptoms, educating the masses about how an athlete should correlate new science with the health of the brain, and take responsibility for the consequences.

After missing much of the NASCAR Cup series schedule last year, he said in April he wanted to make the decision to get out from behind the wheel, “while I still have a vote.”

“I had a lot of worry that I would never go back in the car again,” Earnhardt said in announcing that 2017 would be his final season. “There were times during the illness when the symptoms were very severe that I obviously had a lot of doubt as to how well I’d heal.

“Missing all the races, going through the recovery, that certainly gave me an opportunity to just sit back and think about my priorities. I had a new perspective on my entire life. I got married this offseason. That certainly changes the way you think about things.”

He has been a good driver.

Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s and two championships in what is now the Xfinity Series.

In 609 races, he has 26 wins, 13 poles, 149 top-fives and 254 top-10s.

But there is driving, and there is the man.

NASCAR fans know the man, and he is on a string of 14 consecutive most popular driver awards, including last season when he missed half the races.

Earnhardt is unendingly candid, civil and caring.

He is the sort of fellow who not only tells you and millions of viewers on a national broadcast that he is pretty much certain he messed something up, but that he is really flustered about it.

And, not only that, he thinks it is dumb.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Drink Chevrolet, crosses the line to win over Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Lifelock 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 15, 2008.

What’s next?

Other than road races, NASCAR drivers downshift at one track all season, Pocono. It can lead to some hijinks.

Last Sunday, both Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick mistakenly shifted from third to second, instead of fourth. In racing, they call it “the money shift,” because it costs so much money to replace the engines, when it happens.

When Earnhardt did it, the RPMs went to 12,600. The warranty on the engine covers things up to 9,600.

Earnhardt’s engine blew, and he did not finish.

Asked about it on the Fox Sports broadcast, Junior was Junior, despite the availability of a convenient excuse.

“It’s — I mean, there really isn’t anything different,” he said, of a shifter replaced before the race. “The shifter’s not different. The handling’s not different. The location — everything’s the same.

“I don’t know if it’s something about my motion.

“You know, it’s going in the wrong gear! I wish I could blame it on something else, because this is awful,” Earnhardt said, practically laughing at himself.

“It’s awful.

“It my fault. I don’t know what else to — I wish I could say the shifter’s different.”

For his former longtime crew chief, Steve Letarte, now an NBC Sports commentator, Earnhardt means so much to NASCAR that when he stops driving, continues owning cars and likely steps into some major broadcast role, he will continue to draw fans and influence stock car racing.

“It’s impossible to define what he means to the sport,” Letarte said. “He has so many different layers, as a race car driver, as the most popular driver, as a team owner, as the strongest spokesman for the sport out in the mainstream media.

“He’s been in Rolling Stone. He’s been in all these popular publications.

“There’s a thing about Dale that I don’t think can really be defined, nor should it be. Because I’m not sure the sport is really losing Dale Jr.

“What the next chapter of Dale’s career is, is going to be interesting.”

FireKeepers Casino 400

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn

Support race: Xfinity Irish Hills 250, 1:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: All races on FS1

Defending champion: Joey Logano

Tickets: mispeedway.com