by Bob Margolis , Featured Columnist
Lincoln Electric is a proud partner of Team Penske.
Simply put, win No. 3 of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season for Brad Keselowski was a dominating performance.
For most of Sunday afternoon, the Team Penske driver was untouchable. He had his No. 2 Redd's Ford Fusion in a separate ZIP code from the rest of the field. Often, his lead over the second-place car was nearly five seconds.
It was one of those special afternoons that drivers dream about. Keselowski’s Ford was nearly perfect. No, make that it was perfect. His crew chief, Paul Wolfe, made few changes.
“Well, I knew we had a great car, and you don't take it for granted,” said Keselowski in the post-race press conference. “From our perspective, our car was so fast you hate to do anything to it because something could happen. Every once in a while you get one of these cars and you are thankful and try like hell to not screw them up.”
His win on Sunday completed a sweep of both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a first on the one-mile oval.
His victory made it four wins in a row for Ford, a winning streak Keselowski contributed to at Kentucky last month. It is the first time the Dearborn-based manufacturer has been this hot since 2001, and mention of the streak in the post-race press conference made team owner Roger Penske smile.
“They (Ford) want us to win, and they want to give us what we need to win, and I'd have to say that you couldn't ask for a better weekend,” said Penske. “I've already gotten four or five emails from the top people at Ford. They're watching it every day. Their dealers are watching it, and to me that makes the difference.”
Today’s Sprint Cup competition is closest in recent memory, and a performance like this is rare indeed. We’ve come to expect it from a Jimmie Johnson or maybe a Kevin Harvick. And even though Johnson was sidelined in the race with tire issues and retired early, it’s hard to imagine his presence in the race would have made a difference to the outcome. Harvick struggled and was a non-factor on Sunday.
Keselowski’s car was, as 10th-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it “on rails.”
The post-race statistics will show that Keselowski led seven times for 138 of 301 laps, more than twice the number of laps led by anyone else (Kyle Busch, who finished second, led 62). However, no statistic can show how easily the Team Penske driver sliced his way through lapped traffic as he regained the lead time and time again.
It didn’t matter if his pit stops were a split second or two longer than the competition or that he restarted from fourth or from ninth place—the ease with which Keselowski made it to the front of the field was stunning, despite his protestations in the post-race press conference that “each time it got harder and harder.”
It certainly didn’t appear that way.
“Trying to clear through the dirty air and traffic—that is part of the struggles here at Loudon,” said Keselowski in the post-race conference. “I think that's part of why the racing is so good here, and I think looking at it, you saw the restarts two, three wide. I think I was four wide at one time with someone. I think that's really fun to do, and I hope it's fun to watch because it sure is from my seat.”
Somewhere, just after the checkered flag dropped, NASCAR marketing executives' mobile phones were buzzing. It was good news.
Race winner Keselowski’s name is well-known within the halls of NASCAR's corporate offices. His social media activism has made him both a fan favorite and a favorite of the marketing department, although that group may not admit it. His relentless tweeting has been a focal point for NASCAR’s digital media growth. And his outspoken manner, which often draws the attention of NASCAR senior executives, wins over the fans.
At a time when Johnson is often seen as the face of the sport, with his six championships and All-American (albeit bearded) looks, Keselowski is the antithesis.
He is the face of the fans sitting in the stands and the millions more watching at home. That's why he looked so natural appearing as himself in an advertisement for the TBS show Sullivan and Son that was broadcast on TNT immediately after the conclusion of Sunday's race.
The placement of the commercial was a stroke of genius. That’s because many NASCAR fans know Keselowski as the kind of guy you’d probably want to have a beer with. Johnson, on the other hand, with his six championships and sleek marathon runner’s body, is more of an intimidating presence.
Keselowski, an athlete in his own right, is just the kind of regular Joe that many fans relate to and support as one of their own.
Maybe it’s his working class background that shines through or the humility he learned from being part of his family’s racing roots that makes him a natural.
In the post-race press conference, Keselowski was uncharacteristically quiet to start. He’d had just enough time after the race ended to reflect upon what he had accomplished.
"It really feels like we hit our stride, and I'm kind of quiet and somber because I want to soak it all in. I don't want this moment to go away so quick. (It) seems like you get in victory lane and you're rushed around left and right and you don't really get a chance to soak it in. This was just such a phenomenal weekend, and these don't happen that often, and that's what makes it special, and you try to appreciate them and enjoy them and hope that there's more but not count on it, because these are big deals, winning races at the Sprint Cup level, sweeping a weekend, and it's all possible because of the hard work and effort from everyone at Team Penske. I can drive the heck out of a car, but you can only do so much. You've got to have a good horse, and we had that today."
Each of the 16 drivers who qualify for this year’s Chase has his own bag of tricks that he’ll unleash come postseason play, when each lap of each race matters and every mistake you make is amplified and exaggerated into something that either wins or loses a championship.
It’s easy to assume that Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, a trio of Californians, all of them racing for the top prize in similar equipment, will be tough to beat. They each have their own dedicated and supportive fanbase cheering them on.
Then there’s that guy from Michigan, racing for another guy from Michigan, driving for a manufacturer based in Michigan who is sponsored by a beer company from Wisconsin.
Who will you be cheering for?