An Interview With: BRAD KESELOWSKI
THE MODERATOR: We’re joined obviously by the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford Brad Keselowski. Congratulations on making the Championship 4. You sort of talked about a mantra at the start of the playoffs. You said, "why not us?" I want to know if that’s still sort of your team’s mantra, and if so, I’m going to flip it and say, why should it be you? Why will you guys win the 2020 championship.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Sure. This is my lead?off. It’s a two?part question. I’ve got to process it because my memory is not that great and I’ll forget it halfway through.
The first part, yes, why not us. I think like any team, you go through ups and downs throughout a year and we’ve had some great ups. We’ve won four races. Before the playoffs had started we’d won three. Were we as dominant as we want to be? No, we weren’t. You look at the things that Kevin Harvick did mid?season they were pretty phenomenal. He deserves a lot of credit for it.
I think there were a lot of people at that point in the season ready to start engraving the trophy, and as you can tell, the way things ended up playing out, it’s not that simple.
You know, the way the playoff format is designed, it’s meant to not give any free passes, even though there are teams that have performed really well for the majority of the season.
With that said, our team is motivated. They’re hungry. I’m looking at a group of people, and I think I’m the only one that’s ever won a Cup championship on the entire team lineup. Three of my guys that go over the wall come from my truck team, and I’m super excited for them. I’ve been with them and helped them from kind of day one when they had never pitted a race car before and now here they are competing for a Cup championship. That just gives me butterflies deep down inside.
I’m super pumped for Jeremy Bullins, and he came through the Xfinity team and how he’s grown and just keeps getting better. Our communication is rock solid, on point, whatever you want to call it.
I just feel really good about it. I want to win a championship, of course, for myself, but as much as I want to win it for myself, I want to see the people around get that opportunity like I had before to enjoy it, to celebrate it.
They’re encouraged. They’re motivated and in a great spot. I’m happy for them. So it’s good to see us fight through the adversity you know you’re going to have in these playoffs. We’ve gone through nine races. A few of them have gone really well. A few went really bad and a lot went right in between and we’ve overcome adversity and got this far. I’m ready to finish it off. I think our team is, too.
We know Sunday is not going to be easy. We don’t know what’s going to get thrown at us, but I’m sure something will get thrown at us, and when it comes at us I’m going to do the best I can and I’m confident my team will, too, to brush it aside and move on and keep our head down on the goal to win the race and ultimately the championship.
Looking at this year through a competition lens, do you look at it as the year that you had nine weeks where you didn’t race and you didn’t have practice or qualifying or has it become so normal that you look back and say, oh, that’s the year where Harvick won nine races and didn’t make the Final Four?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, I think come July or August there we reached a level of normalcy pretty quick. All right, this is the new norm. It took a month or two to get established, I’m not going to say anything differently than that. But I think now it’s almost going to be hard to go back to the way it was, to be quite honest.
I don’t enjoy seeing people in pain. I know that at the very root cause of what we’ve done to the schedule and why we are where we’re at is a fair amount of pain for different people, and I don’t enjoy that at all and don’t want anyone to misconstrue anything I say to that point.
But conversely, I’ve really enjoyed this year, enjoyed the schedule, enjoyed the chance to show up at the racetrack on any given weekend, have great wins, go out and win and not be sitting in your bus for three days but just go hard and go compete. I enjoyed the Wednesday races and running two, three times a week it felt like at times. It was a really good feeling to get to do those things, and then also have some kind of normalcy to a life with my family, my wife and two daughters.
I hope that answers your question. That’s how I felt.
Brad, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that you guys are all so evenly matched that what will determine the championship is the mental part; somebody will self?destruct or crumble during the process, and that will be the deciding factor. Do you agree with that?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, it’s hard to pick what the deciding factor is going to be, but I wouldn’t doubt what Dale said. You know, there’s going to be something that happens, and someone is going to recover and someone is not. I don’t know what it is, but that’s the reality. I’d say that’s a pretty astute analysis.
He also said he thought Joey Logano had the lead on the mental side, but I wonder where you think you stack up there because truly we talk so much about performance and execution, but there’s a lot of it right up here.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, no doubt. A large part of being a race car driver is mental. It’s the approach, the preparation, it’s the resiliency. Those are mental things that manifest themselves into physical results.
It’s hard for me to comment on any other driver’s preparation. I’ve got enough to prepare myself, let alone to critique against anyone else’s preparation, but I know that I feel good about it.
You were pretty quick to call the election the other night; I’m wondering if that’s at all the same way people called Harvick an automatic finalist.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: You could draw some parallels. You could draw some parallels. But hey, we don’t know what we don’t know, right, and there’s the old saying that tell God your plans and he’ll get a good chuckle.
Anyway, yeah, I guess probably the same could be said for this weekend for sure. You know, it’s interesting, I read Bob Pockrass’s article where he picked me. Thanks, Bob, I appreciate that. Dale Jr., thanks; Joey Logano, that’s news to me, that’s fine.
Maybe we’re all wrong. Who knows what’s going to happen. That’s why we all race, right. That’s why we don’t run the race on paper, we run it on the racetrack because things happen and none of us really know what’s going to happen. All we can really guarantee is our preparation and our effort.
Can you sympathize for Harvick or are you glad you don’t have to face him Sunday?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Well, I mean, I think it would probably be a little bit of both. I said this to someone, and forgive me, I don’t know who it was, it might have been someone in this room. But one of the all?time lows of my career was winning six races, the most races of anyone in 2014, and not being eligible for the Championship 4. I had gone to Martinsville and broke a gear, still don’t know why it broke, bad part, I don’t know, broke a gear and didn’t have enough points to transfer. Almost won Texas and we know how that one played out, and boom, next thing I know, I’m out of the Final Four after winning the most races.
It’s a helpless feeling. It’s a frustrating feeling. But it’s what the format is. It’s what we all signed up for.
So I do feel those sympathies for him. In a selfish way I’m glad that I won’t have to compete against him this Sunday in the sense of for the championship, but certainly for the race win I expect him to be a large factor.
Are you going to be cashing in favors on Sunday? Do you expect to be given more room as a championship contender?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: I don’t know if cashing in is the right word. I don’t know if I have many of those in the bank. Hopefully you don’t need them. You know, if you just go out there and execute, if the team brings a great car, driver does a great job, pit crew executes, we won’t need any favors. I can’t say I’ve been really thinking about that too much.
Brad, I’m curious, can you give me a sense of what the discussion is like with the devil this week going to a short track race ??
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Discussion with the devil?
How does a driver have a discussion with the devil in the sense of this is a short track race, there’s a little bit more potential to do something maybe more so than at Homestead, and how a driver ?? again, I know when you’re in the moment it just happens, but how a driver assesses and thinks about if they’re in that position what they’re going to do and how far that draw that discussion with the devil on it.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, you know, Phoenix is interesting because certainly it’s not a mile?and?a?half, but I know a lot of us lump it into the short track category. I don’t know, it’s certainly not Martinsville or Bristol. So it’s somewhere in between those two, no doubt.
I would suspect that there will be some kind of moment, to your point, where there will be a little fender?bender. How much? I don’t know. A lot of reasons to question that with the PJ1 and everything going on. I haven’t put too much thought into that. Again, my focus is really on just getting in the lead and driving away. I hope we can do that and not have to worry about those things.
Also, obviously it’s been well?documented you’ve won the last two races with this tire compound and done it in very dominant fashion, and I know you were certainly excited going into Richmond and felt very confident. I guess two things: Do you share that confidence that you had going into Richmond this weekend, and what happened at Richmond and New Hampshire, does that really matter at this point?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Well, I would say I feel pretty darned good, yeah. You know, I’ve had different conversations internally this week than I had the last time I was in the Championship 4, that at their most basic level come from a high level of confidence. There’s nothing guaranteed, but I’m very confident we’re going to go there and be very competitive and have a great shot to win the race.
That’s what I can guarantee is that we’ll be there, we’ll be focused, my team is going to bring a great car, and the chips will fall where they will from there, but our preparation and all that will ?? it’s already at a very high level, and I feel good about that.
Two things: First off, is it going to be any kind of a curve ball, even though you’ve been to the Championship 4 before, so how different or any type of a curve ball will it be to go in now without practice and qualifying, without going in a weekend through nerves and just showing up and racing?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, I think kind of back to what I was saying before, I’m kind of looking forward to it. We’ve been so good with it the rest of the season that it’s become the new normal, and I’m cool with that. I’m just ready to go. It feels so old school to me. It feels like when we just started racing and you would just show up at your local short track Saturday at lunchtime and there would be a race at 5:00 or 7:00 at night or heat race and then a feature race and that was it, and then you loaded up and you were home by 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. It’s so much like that now.
It’s never, in my years of Cup, been anything like that. In a lot of ways it’s refreshing because not just the family time but because you don’t have three days of sweating over every little detail of all right, I need three hours to prepare for qualifying and after that I need an hour of studying and then I’ve got to go wake up at 7:00 in the morning and have an 8:00 a.m. practice session and the track is nowhere near the right condition, do we want to change the car setup, I don’t know, I don’t know, so?and?so is faster than us, yeah, but the track is not right. All these kind of mindless debates that you would have are kind of gone with this setting. I don’t know if there was a lot of value in those that really communicated themselves to our fans or communicated themselves to our fan base to where they generated some excitement out of it. But they’re certainly gone. It’s a little bit different. I’m not complaining. I’m glad to get to race.
Secondly, you mentioned your team maybe not being here before, you might be the only one who’s been in this environment. How much of a leader will you have to be the rest of this week and certainly going into Sunday to maybe prepare them, keep them focused and not let the moment get to them?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, I definitely feel the weight on my shoulders as far as leading the team, being the sole member that’s won a Cup championship before. There’s also a great sense of pride I take in that, and I think mutual respect that we all have for each other as a team accordingly, and that’s okay. I’m really relishing the position I have within my team right now.
Despite the noise around the predictions of who’s the favorite and who’s going to win, do you personally feel like you’re a favorite to win this race?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, I don’t know about the word "favorite." I think that means different things to different people. You know, I always think of it more from a sense of a gambling connotation, but maybe other people think of it differently.
So I really hesitate to use that word because I’m not a sports gambler, and that’s what I hear when people say that.
But there’s things I feel great about, like I feel great about the tire, I feel great about the car we’re bringing. This car and this tire combination we’ve won the last two races. There’s some differences between Richmond, Loudon and Phoenix that maybe negate some of those advantages, but that’s okay. My team has worked really hard, and I’ve prepared extra hard to be ready for the moment. Time will tell.
Do any of the predictions that you’ve seen before leading up to this race, does that serve to motivate you at all?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: I don’t really need external motivation, to be honest, and I really don’t feed off of it. I enjoy when people have confidence in me. Certainly that’s a pleasurable thing to experience, but it’s not motivating to me. What’s motivating to me is usually, like I said, looking at my family’s faces and knowing how excited they are to get to go to Phoenix, and that’s motivating to me. My team and seeing them work so hard and knowing that their heart is in a great place, that’s motivating to me. I think that’s probably where I take the motivation from.
Given how abnormal 2020 has been, would winning a championship, I don’t want to say mean more but feel different? Should there be an asterisk next to it?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, you know, I think each champion has their own asterisk next to them. You know, each championship is won in its own unique way. It’s hard to say which ones mean more and which ones mean less. You know, you can argue the formats play into that. You can argue external circumstances like COVID?19 play into that. You can certainly argue that rules packages on the cars play into that. It’s really hard, I think, to quantify championships and maybe their difficult level or their earned level with everything that goes on over the course of a year or season.
It’s hard for me to say that a champion this year would be any less deserving than any other championship. I don’t know if I see that. I do think there are years that the champion is more deserving than others. I think that most people would probably agree with that. But the reality is the championship is just that; it’s a culmination of work and effort that’s led up to an overall title, and in that sense, I don’t want to undermine it.
You’ve previously talked about how you’re snake bitten at Phoenix but you’re heading there with a car that’s won two races and it has the opportunity to be the fastest on the track. Is that the anti?venom you need, and will it be extra special to hoist the trophy at a track that you’ve struggled with historically?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, it would. It’s one of the tracks on the circuit I have never won at. I had a great shot at winning last spring. We got wrecked early, still managed to recover and lead a bunch of laps, win a stage, and the yellows didn’t fall our way towards the end. There was the yellow that came out I think with 60 or 70 to go and we had pitted 15, 20 laps earlier and didn’t really feel like it was a smart move to pit right there because we only had one set of tires left, and the way the yellows played out, we never got a chance to really take advantage of the set of tires we had left in the pits, and I ended up getting passed for the lead by cars that had tires. That was frustrating for sure. I felt like that one kind of slipped through our hands but not necessarily because of anything we did wrong.
We had an opportunity, I think, to win there in the fall of ’18 and I made a small little mistake getting through traffic, and we finished second. We had an opportunity to win there in 2012, and early in the race, that’s the year we won the championship a week later, but we had a terrible pit stop and came out towards the middle of the field and didn’t have enough time to recover.
So I feel like I probably had two or three opportunities to win there and have been snake bit.
But the reality is overall I feel like if you keep putting yourself in position that eventually it’ll happen. I’ve been in position at Phoenix a number of times. Some of them I’ve messed up, to be quite honest. I feel like we’re due. I feel due to win at Phoenix. Certainly this year represents one of the best opportunities.
Last year there was some conversation regarding Championship 4 appearances possibly being weighed more valuable in this specific era than championships themselves. I was curious where you stand on that and how valuable the appearances are versus the titles themselves.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, the appearances are pretty big, no doubt about that. I think ?? I don’t want to undermine winning the championship, but just to make it to the Final Four nowadays is a huge accomplishment. It’s very difficult to do. So I would say that, like anything ?? I’ve got to be careful how I word this. People always ask me how important is the driver, and the easiest thing I can say to that is the team owners have already answered it. If you look at their annual budgets and how much they allocate percentage?wise to their drivers, there you go. That’s how important your driver is, and generally a driver makes 30 to 45 percent of a team’s annual budget. So that’s how important a driver is.
If you quantify how important the Final Four is, using that same analogy, you kind of follow the money and almost all the major team owners have lent credence to that in the driver contracts, whether that be bonus structures or whatever it might be. I think that’s really intentional. I think the car owners are answering that for us. And the car owners kind of roll downhill from the sponsors. So the sponsors are answering as well. And the sponsors of course play off of ratings and attendance and things of that nature, specifically what kind of ROI they’re seeing in their media numbers, so the media kind of has answered that question.
And as you guys know as members of the media, based off your own metrics that you have, the fans react pretty strongly to it, that’s why there’s such a great turnout here on sessions like this, because everyone is looking for great content to share with those fans because it’s probably going to be consumed at a fairly high level.
Long story short, I think we all have our own sense of how important it is to make the Final Four and how significant it is to our sport across the different stakeholders, and I’m right in line with that.
The Round of 12 didn’t go you guys’ way but you followed it up with a stellar Round of 8, two fourth?place finishes and a sixth. What did you learn about your team during that process, and how can you carry over the momentum to this final race?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: I think probably the biggest thing I took out of the last round was from Martinsville itself. I tried my best to treat Martinsville as though it was Phoenix. In that sense, it was a cutoff race, points were really close. I think I was only a few points behind Denny Hamlin, and I knew if I beat Denny Hamlin in points I would be okay to move on to next week, which was ultimately going to come down to stage points and the finish where this week is just the finish. Ultimately I treated the race weekend as though I was in Phoenix competing for the championship.
It felt a little bit like a dress rehearsal, and certainly learned a few things about me. I learned probably be careful on pit road towards the end of the race and don’t let your aggressiveness get to you, and beyond that, the resiliency that this team has to keep pushing when it counts.
You’re not a team owner anymore, but put on your team owner hat and think about this for a second: With the no practice and no qualifying, is that very financially advantageous to a team? Is that something that can be a really cost?saving measure, something that NASCAR has been trying to do for years? And would you like to see that continued on a consistent basis as we move forward?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, absolutely it’s a huge cost saver. It’s probably 20 to 30 percent of an annual team budget, savings, which is significant. It’s hard to say where the future will go there, but I would say there’s probably some key lessons learned there that will be applied to the future, and I think we’re just learning ways to operate more efficiently, and I think that’s a good thing.
There was a second part to that question that I didn’t hear.
No, that’s exactly what I said. They’re going to do it some next year, but as NASCAR talks about the cost savings that they’re trying for teams, the next?gen car and all that junk, this is kind of something that’s a little unexpected because obviously I’m sure no practice, no qualifying wasn’t factored into that until all of a sudden it had to be done and now NASCAR and you guys could look at this and say this is actually working and it’s saving us money. Is that something you’d like to see moving forward?
BRAD KESELOWSKI: Yeah, absolutely I want to see more of it going forward. I think it’s been great for everyone. Like you said, we were practicing at 9:00 in the morning I think it was in Michigan for the last 10 years of my career. The track is a balmy 42 degrees and the race conditions are going to be 80. The speeds were 10 miles an hour faster than anything we’d see in the race, and we were just burning tires, burning engines, burning everything.
I would look at my team and say, what are we doing, let’s just keep this thing parked in the garage, and they would look at me like I was crazy, we can’t do that, we’ve got a new widget to put on the car and we need to see how it performs and you need to get on board with this. Okay. There I am at 9:00 a.m. in the morning, running 215 into the corner, and just praying the right front tire stays on it, nowhere near the race conditions, and just burning gas, burning tires, burning engines and probably even making a few fans mad because they had a good night in Michigan the night before, if you know what I mean, and didn’t want to hear loud noises that early in the morning.
Yeah, I think that needed to go. That was a good move. That’s one I hope we keep. Everybody won on that one.
So I think the key is to find the scenarios where everybody wins. Certainly there’s other scenarios where it doesn’t work out, doesn’t make sense, whether that’s new tracks we never ran at before or some kind of unique scenario like the dirt track at Bristol. Yeah, probably need a little practice for that. But in totality I think it’s been really good for the sport.
THE MODERATOR: If you win the championship, are we going to see a glass the size of Rattlesnake Hill with some chugging and beer inside? That was pre?marriage and pre?kids is why I ask.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: My wife has told me that she will prepare the glass as long as I promise to drink responsibly. There’s a little backstory to it. Those people that know me know that I like to leave things as they were, meaning that we located the glass from 2012. It still had beer in it a little bit on the bottom. Needless to say that was not a pleasant sight, but it was authentic, so my wife is cleaning it as we speak, she’s going to wrap it up, put it in a nice bubble wrapped box, and hopefully we’ll be getting it out Sunday night.
THE MODERATOR: Best of luck to you, Brad, this Sunday.
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