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Pedley: Is Bad Brad Becoming A Garage-Area Outsider?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 20 2010

Brad Keselowski is at a crossroads in his Sprint Cup career. Does he want to become one of the boys, or not? (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Apparently it is not just Carl Edwards who has cancelled his membership in the Brad Keselowski fan club. Judging from comments issued by other drivers at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, Bad Brad may not exactly be walking among friends as he roams the garages these days.

Jimmie Johnson, for example, said this: “You just don’t turn off a garage area as fast as he has for no reason.”

Garage area turned off by Keselowski? Already? The guy has only been in the garages 22 times for gosh sakes.

The fact is, he is probably becoming a garage-area pariah because of what he has done in just 21 races.

As with all closed societies, there is an unwritten code among race car drivers. There are things you do, things you don’t do; times to do those things and times not to do those things. There are people you can do things to, and people you cannot do things to.

The lines which one can and not cross if you are to be accepted in the Sprint Cup closed society of drivers are not painted on the garage floors. No handbills are distributed and no lists are posted on bulletin boards anywhere.

They just are there. Newcomers are expected to know the unwritten rules by reading between the lines, by interpreting subtle looks, jabs and comments.

Johnson gave a glimpse into garage-area culture when asked about Keselowski this weekend.

“If you watch the Nationwide races,” the four-time and defending champion said, “there’s a long list starting with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards and there’s just like an overall brewing of thought and discussion in the garage area. I think some of it has to do with when you come into the sport, especially at the top level as a rookie, if you like it or not, you’re going to take a few lumps before you’re given that opportunity to pass some out. And I believe he’s come in and has passed out more bumps than he’s taken.

“And a lot of people view that as great and some people view it the opposite. There is no right or wrong in all that. I think a great example of someone who had a rough start is Kyle Busch. Now that this point, that’s behind him and he’s moved on and can talk about totally different things and about how great he’s doing in Trucks and Nationwide and Cup cars. We all have our entry point into the sport.”

Scott Speed’s entry point was 2009, his first full-time season in Cup. Perhaps because of experience he had in other forms of racing, perhaps because of plain old common sense, he knew the benefits of observing garage-area etiquette.

“I went through my whole first year in Cup not burning any bridges at all,” Speed, the Red Bull Racing driver who has worked his way into the top 12 in points this year, said.  “There was a point to that. There was a reason why I went about being very respectful of everyone and sort of not making any enemies at all.

“That has started this season off very well. Now we’re at the point where maybe if something happens on the track where I need to be super aggressive or I need to make an aggressive move that might not make someone quite happy with me, but I’m at the point now where I’m starting with 43 friends out there.  I haven’t made anyone mad over my first year and now it puts me in a position where I’m able to run better, I have no enemies out there that have any scores to settle.”

Johnson says it took him time to learn the unwritten rules. He said there was a time when he took his lumps. OK, several times he had to take lumps.

“When I was running in the (Nationwide Series, Matt Kenseth wrecked me all the time,” Johnson said. “And it took until we were racing together in Cup for us to become friends and spent more time around one another. He actually apologized like man, I’m going to have to say I’m sorry because those years in Nationwide when we were racing I just crashed you; I just wrecked you. And I’m like oh I feel better about it because I think we’re kind of friendly now and I always wondered all those years why he just wrecked me for no reason.

“I remember one time in Dover I was running 6th or 7th and he had dominated all day long and something went wrong and he was coming up through and there were just a few laps left and he turned me around in (turns) 1 and 2 and I hit the fence.

“I was sitting down on the inside of the track waiting for him to drive by and I had the engine running and I was just doing to door him, and when I dropped the clutch to take off, the bumper bar had wrapped up under the race car and had the rear tires off the ground. So when I tried to take off I couldn’t go anywhere! And I was like, damn it.

“Another one was Jeff Burton in Martinsville. Had to be ’03 or ’04 time frame. For a top 10 finish, he absolutely drove all over the top of me. He ran into for numerous laps. He ran over the side of me and I couldn’t understand why or what went on. He came over the truck afterwards, through all my crew guys that were mad at him, and walked up into my truck and apologized but didn’t have an excuse. He just said man, I ran all over you. And he said he was wrong and he shouldn’t have raced me like that. If you’re going to run somebody over, it means a lot to have somebody step up and say something to you.

“One funny one was when Ward (Burton) and I got into it one year at Loudon. We were coming from the back and coming up through there and we got together going into Turn 1 and I got into him and turned him around and he hit the fence. He got back on track and spent like four or five laps trying to crash me. So then I was pretty nervous about what went on and started tracking him down. I called his office but that didn’t work and somehow I got his home phone number. And I don’t know what made him more mad actually, whether it was me calling him on the phone or calling him at home. I think he was cussing at me because it was a little tough to understand him but he went on for 30 seconds in just four-letter words and he finally calmed down and we talked it out from there. That’s just a part of it.”

Denny Hamlin said his initiation came courtesy of good-guy Mark Martin.

“It was my only DNF of my rookie season,” Hamlin said. “At Martinsville I was racing Mark Martin I think pretty hard, probably midway through the race and he just ran right up into me and cut my left rear tire on purpose. I spun out, I tried to cause a caution and I ended up backing into the fence and ended our day. We got a DNF, I was pissed so I talked to Mark on Monday and he was like, ‘Why were you even running me that hard?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know to be honest with you.’

“But I feel like all the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve at least made a conscience effort to try to correct them or learn from them. I think that’s the biggest difference people have seen from the guys that are like that today versus back in the days. Sure everyone had a little wild hair in them at some point in their career, but they got over it and they were a little more humble about it.”

Keselowski has to decide whether he wants to become an insider or an outsider when it comes to the Sprint Cup fraternity. He has to decide if he wants to observe the unwritten rules or flaunt them.

So far, he has chosen the latter and that’s cool. Perhap’s it is what the sport needs. NASCAR drove to fame as being a sport of rebels.

But Keselowski will pay a price if he decides to remain Bad Brad. The crowded, noisy garages can be a quiet, lonely place for those who have only enemies in there. And the track can be even worse.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 20 2010
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