Brad Keselowski, chasing a championship, looks to finally break through at 'special' MIS

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brad Keselowski is returning home to accomplish one of the few things he hasn’t during his NASCAR Cup career: Win a race at Michigan International Speedway.

It’s not like the 36-year-old native of Rochester Hills hasn’t run well at the two-mile superspeedway, either. Keselowski has a handful of top 3 finishes, including second in 2018.

Brad Keselowski of Rochester Hills owns 33 career victories in the NASCAR Cup series, but none at Michigan International Speedway.

Keselowski and the rest of the NASCAR Cup drivers will be competing in a doubleheader at MIS this weekend, the FireKeepers Casino 400 Saturday afternoon, followed by the Consumers Energy 400 on Sunday. In the series’ first doubleheader earlier this summer at Pocono, Keselowski finished ninth in Race No. 1 and 11th in Race No. 2.

Keselowski won team owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR Cup championship back in 2012 in a Dodge Charger. He has competed in a Ford at Penske since that title year, finishing fourth in points in 2017 and eighth the last two years.

Keselowski, who signed a contract extension with Team Penske earlier this week, is in his 11th season with Penske, where he has earned 32 of his 33 wins in the NASCAR Cup series.

Simply put, Keselowski has been among the top drivers in the Cup series during the last 10 years, winning 32 times, third behind only series points leader Kevin Harvick (39) and defending series champion Kyle Busch (37). Seven-time series champ Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season, has 30 wins in the last 10 years.

Keselowski has run up front for the majority of the season, earning three wins, including last Sunday at New Hampshire.

And, while Keselowski took advantage of his competitors’ late failures in wins at Charlotte and Bristol, he dominated at New Hampshire, leading 184 of 301 laps. Now, he plans to end that 0-for-21 run at MIS.

Team Penske drivers all have had strong seasons so far, with Keselowski sitting second in points, Ryan Blaney in fourth and Joey Logano, sixth. The team has combined for six wins with Logano winning two and Blaney one.

“It’s good to be coming back home this weekend with the opportunity to win two races; Saturday and Sunday we have two great chances,” Keselowski said on a Zoom call Thursday morning with a group of reporters from Michigan. “I don’t know what we have to do to break through and get a win. I was actually talking to Joey Logano about it, because I won last weekend on his home track in New Hampshire and he keeps winning at Michigan and I keep winning at his home track. We both say, ‘Hey, want to trade?’”

Logano has won three times at MIS, including the June race last year. Keselowski has won twice at New Hampshire.

NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski holds a giant lobster to celebrate his victory last weekend at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H.

“We ran really, really well at Michigan lately; we led a bunch of laps there last year, ran out of fuel there at the end, not leading but close to the front,” said Keselowski, who finished sixth last June at MIS, then led the first 39 laps in the August race, still running third with 12 laps remaining before ultimately finishing 19th after a late pit stop for fuel.

“I think over the last few years combined we’ve sat on the pole a couple of times, led a bunch of laps, had a number of top-fives and top-10s, just can’t seem to break through to Victory Lane, but boy do I feel like we’re due as a team. We have great cars, great efforts and looking forward to maximizing the opportunity in front of us.

“We have some good momentum going as a team."

While Denny Hamlin (five wins, Toyota) of Joe Gibbs Racing and Harvick (four, Ford) of Stewart-Haas Racing have been the drivers to beat throughout the season, Keselowski now has joined the conversation as a driver who has a legitimate chance of winning the series championship.

This season has been like no other during Keselowski’s career with Penske, since the COVID-19 pandemic first halted the season for 10 weeks, then returned in mid-May with multiple races in a week, along with the fact practice sessions and qualifying have been wiped away during race weekends.

Keselowski talked about the challenge of putting it all on the line in the opening laps of the race after no practice and no qualifying.

“I have to tell you when you unload at these race tracks and they drop the green with no practice, there’s no feeling in the world like that,” Keselowski said. “I’m not going to say we’re like soldiers or anything like that, but it is directly in the line of fire. I’ll tell you it’s nerve-wracking because you’re putting so much confidence in your equipment. You have to when you’re driving down in that corner at 200 mph with no practice. You’re just praying that everybody has got every bolt tight, this thing is dialed in and the travels are right and it’s not going to go down in the corner and fall apart or bottom on the race track and go knock the wall down at 200 mph, but you can’t take it easy for the first few laps because you’ll get your doors blown off, so it’s a completely different world.

Keselowski is thrilled to have his plans set for the 2021 season with Team Penske and now wants to get that second series championship.

“It’s good to not have to worry about 2021, to get that put behind me and to be able to really focus on winning a championship in 2020," he said. "We have a great shot at it, it’s right in front of us and to have that other stuff done just lets us focus straight on the competition."

He called racing at MIS this weekend "special."

“Every race is special in some way, but I think we can all agree that some races are more special,” Keselowski said. “Michigan will always be a place near and dear to my heart as my home track, the one that I have a number of family and friends that normally travel to, and I just want to get that first Cup win there. I know we can. We’ve been so close, and I feel like it will happen and I’m very hopeful that this will be the year.

“It’s a tough track. It’s super big. When they repaved it seven or eight years ago it went from being this track with different grooves, try all these different tactics to becoming a narrow track to where you were limited to where you could run and that put the drivers really, really on edge to try not to make a mistake and there were more wrecks and accidents than ever before, so I think that’s part of the new challenge.”

Keselowski feels the days of three-day race weekends will be a thing of the past with NASCAR showing it could put on a good show in shorter span of time.

“I think there’s going to be lessons, not just in NASCAR or not just only in sports, but across the entire environment that are learned from this pandemic that will apply for years to come,” he said.

“I think probably the biggest one is when we used to come to race tracks like Michigan on Thursday and race until Sunday and that was 3½ days, so it led to a lot of cost with hotels, rental cars and so forth and exposed a lot of people to different things that may not always be great. I don’t see us going back to that model. I can see us maybe going back to two days at a race track, not the three, 3½, four days, so I think that’s probably going to be permanently changed based off of this experience and our ability to prove that we could adapt to it and still put on great races.”

Brad Keselowski has three NASCAR victories so far this season.

NASCAR Cup Series

FIREKEEPERS CASINO 400

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Michigan International Speedway, 156 laps, 312 miles

TV: NBCSN

Last year's winner: Joey Logano (Team Penske)

CONSUMERS ENERGY 400

When: Sunday, 4:30 p.m.

Where: Michigan International Speedway, 156 laps, 312 miles

TV: NBCSN

Last year's winner: Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing)

david.goricki@detroitnews.com