BY LARRY HAMEL
For the Sun-Times
When I met Brad Keselowski, it struck me that he looked me in the eye when he spoke, not off into the distance with disinterest as numerous big-name pro athletes do when dealing with the media.
And that he talked to me, not at me.
Keselowski’s first inclination upon entering the balcony dining area at Portillo’s in River North earlier this week was to fix his gaze on black-and-white photos of Prohibition agents with barrels of contraband booze and of the 1920 Republican convention held at the long-demolished Chicago Coliseum, in which Warren J. Harding was the GOP’s presidential nominee.
“I love history,” he said. “The memorabilia in this place is amazing.”
You get the distinct impression that Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, would be equally at ease in the driver’s seat of his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion as he would on his couch at home watching Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” on PBS.
Obviously, he is a man of many facets.
After the camera lights shut off and the Michigan native had fulfilled the promotional obligations of a three-stop whirlwind tour of three Chicago hot-dog joints, Keselowski flipped the switch from sound-bite mode to full-fledged conversation when he sat down with me for a one-on-one interview.
Brad had taken one bite from a huge wedge of Portillo’s iconic chocolate cake — “Wow, delicious,” he had earlier had said for the camera, giving it a thumbs-up — and he politely asked me, “Do you want some? It’s delicious.”
Keselowski, 31, chooses his words with painstaking care and punctuates his speech with long pregnant pauses for emphasis, all the while looking his questioner directly in the eye. He speaks with the skill of an orator.
My first question dealt with a statement he made after the event in Richmond, the last of the “regular season” heading into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup opener on Sunday (2 p.m., NBCSN) at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet. Keselowski had opined that his team was “on the cusp of being able to win races with regularity,” even though it had one victory in 26 starts in 2015.
His answer seemed to take on a life of its own.
“Do you ever play blackjack? If you’ve ever sat down at a blackjack table, you notice that you can go two hours, three hours and hit nothing. And then you have an hour where you hit everything and you can’t do anything wrong. Sometimes racing’s that way. The key is when you’re down, you don’t lose all your money. And when you’re up, you win big.
“[Pregnant pause.] That’s racing. There’s a certain amount in racing that you can control and there’s a certain amount you can’t. You know over time that when you’re controlling everything you can control — and doing it very well — and maybe not getting the best results, the table’s about to turn. You feel the energy of the table,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Racing’s the same way. Conversely, you know that when you’re seeing someone who’s not doing everything right, but they’re still winning, you say, ‘Ahhhh, it’s going to turn.’ When it turns, it’s going to bite this guy big. And it does — it never fails. That’s just racing.”
(Be patient, readers, this is going somewhere — and the payoff is worth it.)
“Racing can be very cruel like that, where you can play every hand perfectly like you are playing blackjack, and lose … and lose … and lose … and lose. [Pregnant pause.] Eventually you’ll win. It’s all about the amount of money you have on the table and the feeling you have for the table. You know when the energy is good, you know when the energy is bad. You know where you’re at. You know the ‘count.’ I feel like I know the ‘count.’ I feel really good about it.”
It was an eloquent way of stating, with the regard to the Chase and the luck of his rivals, that he is due.
Next I asked Keselowski, who won the Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway in 2012 and last year, about how the Chase format makes a near-total reset of the points after the so-called “regular season,” and whether it was fair to the drivers who had been the most successful to start with a few more points than the last guy in at No. 16.
He flashed a wry smile and said, “They have a token advantage. One bad race will more than wipe you out. Last year after the first bracket finish in Dover, we started in Kansas. I had five wins on the season, which was two more than anyone else. I had led career-highs in laps, top-fives, top-10s, and when we got to Kansas, even though I had won the most races, won the first bracket in every sense with both wins and points, we were tied in points with another car that had as many top-fives as I had wins. The system completely resets. It forgets what you did, not just yesterday, but forgets what you did five minutes ago. It doesn’t care.”
Continuing along that line, I posed the question to Keselowski that if he were the hypothetical Czar of Racing, would he keep such a format?
“First off, it is important to acknowledge that I am not the Czar of Racing” he said. “I feel the same way about NASCAR as I do about any sport. Sports to me fall in a hierarchy to be successful. Competition. Fans. Corporate sponsorship. One … two … three. Without great competition, you have no fans. Without fans, you have no corporate sponsorship. And circle all the way back around, corporate sponsorship makes the competition possible by putting up the money. So it goes, boom, boom, boom … recycle. Boom, boom, boom … recycle.
“That’s how the sport works. [Pregnant pause.] That’s how, really, all sports work. So when I think of that hierarchy, I think that competition must exist in the truest form possible. Otherwise it taints the second level and taints the third level to irrelevance. Just as the tail of the dog should not wag the dog, the second and third elements of sports should never wag the first element. It should always be the truest competition, because, eventually, the whole structure collapses if you do not have true competition. And true competition, to me. exists in a sport that does not rely on extracurricular methods to fulfill the interests of fans or corporate sponsors.
“So to answer the question, no, I don’t agree with it.”
A deep thinker is this man Brad Keselowski. A latter-day William Jennings Bryan, apparently, able to drive stock cars at 200 mph.