Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kese-who? Keselowski wins first career Cup race 7

Brad Keselowski hopped out of his car and needed to know his win was for real.

"Pinch me! Am I awake?" he yelled. "How about this team!"

Believe it, Brad.

The 25-year-old rookie is a first-time winner in the Sprint Cup series, and he did it at Talladega Superspeedway.

Keselowski got all the perks that go along with Sunday's win. He was drenched in Victory Lane, hugged every well-wisher and his jaw dropped when he learned he received an automatic entry into NASCAR's annual All-Star race next month.

That might be the next time Keselowski takes the seat of a Cup car again.

With only five career Cup starts, he's nearly as much an unknown to racing fans as the makeshift team he won for.

It was the first-ever Cup victory for owner James Finch in a part-time career that dates back in this series to 1990. Journeyman crew chief Marc Reno started his career in 1969 and held various jobs for some of the sport's biggest drivers.

The giddy pair were so new to the Sprint Cup news conference that they repeatedly referenced the series by its old name, Winston Cup.

Finch flinched when told of the All-Star deal.

"Does that come with sponsorship?" he said.

He might be fielding some calls this week.

"This is the best thing that ever happened to me," Finch said.

Keselowski deftly avoided all the wrecks that wiped out so many big-name drivers over the 500-mile race, putting him in position to challenge another boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his biggest challenger, Carl Edwards, on the final lap.

Keselowski, driving for Finch's Phoenix Racing, bumped Edwards and sent him sailing up the track and into the safety fence. Edwards got out of the car and ran to the finish line, putting a light touch on what could have been a scary ending. Eight fans were injured by debris when Edwards' car went airborne, though none of the injuries are considered life-threatening.

Keselowski apologized for the wreck and was thankful no fans were seriously injured.

"That's what the fans want. They want contact," Keselowski said.

Even Earnhardt, his boss in NASCAR's second-tier series, was impressed with Keselowski's charge down the stretch.

"I couldn't believe Brad was pushing that No. 99," Earnhardt said. "I would have guessed anybody else. He did an awesome job."

Keselowski won twice in 77 Nationwide Series races and was winless in 43 trucks races. His previous best Cup finish was 19th at Texas last year in his debut race.

He drives the No. 88 for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, a team partnered with Hendrick Motorsports. Keselowski is being groomed to replace Mark Martin, but no one knows when the flip-flopping Martin will finally retire.

Earnhardt finished second behind his protege.

"It occurred to me I was passing him for second," Keselowski said. "It didn't occur to me that I was keeping him from winning the race."

Finch only employs a little more than two dozen people in his small shop and makes his living in the construction business. He had Keselowski slotted for about 10 Cup races this season and not again until July at Daytona.

One win could alter all those plans.

"I feel like I'm ready to run at this level full-time," Keselowski said.

Anyone interested in a driver with one more win this year than Earnhardt, Tony Stewart or Denny Hamlin?

"I don't have anything locked in," Keselowski said. "I don't have a ride secured for next year; I don't have a job secured for next year. Everything to this point has been wait and see."

At least the waiting is over for that first Cup win.