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Keselowski, Team Penske make smooth ride

DAYTONA BEACH

Brad Keselowski walked into Daytona International Speedway this month wearing his Miller Lite gear and carrying a half-guzzled bottle of orange juice.

"If you drink enough orange juice, you can drink a lot of beer," he reasoned. "Yin and yang."

Penske Racing will remember last season as the year Keselowski finally brought the auto racing blue blood its first NASCAR Sprint Cup series championship.

But when the 2013 season begins with Sunday's Daytona 500, it could be the start of Penske's new, Zen-like balance between two of the sport's brightest young stars: the beer-drinking, free-tweeting Keselowski and the buttoned-down, calculating upstart Joey Logano.

Keselowski has become one of racing's most colorful personalities. He's a Twitter star with flashy white shoes and a desire to park a tank in his driveway. During a live SportsCenter interview after winning the series title, NASCAR's new champion took a swig from a massive Miller Lite glass and talked about his buzz.

"I think you can find a balance for that," the 29-year-old Michigan native said. "I think that drives me in a lot of things I do, whether it's drinking orange juice so I can drink beer, or being on Twitter so I can go out and swear when I'm on TV."

Until last year, Keselowski's antics obscured the fact that he's a darn good driver.

He won the 2010 Nationwide series title and finished fifth in Cup points in 2011. Since his first full-time Cup season (2010), only Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have more victories than Keselowski's eight.

"I think what you see is what you get," Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said.

In the final 20 races of 2012, Keselowski had as many wins (three) as he did finishes outside the top 10. His No. 2 machine wrecked into a 30th-place finish at Bristol, took 11th at Charlotte and coasted through the season finale at Homestead to a 15th-place finish — good enough for Keselowski to become the only series champion other than Stewart or Johnson since 2005.

"He is a big boy now," 2012 Cup runnerup Clint Bowyer said.

Four years ago, Logano was expected to be a big boy, too.

He was anointed as the sport's next star before he could legally drive. He's the youngest race winner in Nationwide and Cup history, even though he acknowledges he wasn't ready when he inherited Stewart's full-time ride at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009.

"I thought I was prepared back then," Logano said, "but I wasn't."

The results showed. He has only two victories and 41 top-10 finishes in 147 Cup starts. He has never finished in the top 15 in points.

But those statistics come with caveats. Logano spent 2011 wondering whether his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, would leave (he did). The past two seasons, he drove through rumors that he would lose his ride to Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth.

"I'm shocked the kid did as well as he did," Fox analyst Larry McReynolds said.

When JGR tapped Kenseth to replace Logano last fall, Keselowski lobbied his bosses to move Logano into Penske's No. 22 Ford. That gave the new guy instant credibility in the garage.

"It brings with it a lot of respect of the guys before I even walked into the place," Logano said. "That was a big deal. I feel like it made the transition quicker."

Logano is goofy but more reserved and polished than Kese­lowski. Yet they share plenty of similarities. They're savvy, single, locked-in 20-somethings who have experienced success at all levels of racing.

And although Logano hasn't lived up to his billing yet, he's only 22 years old. Hall of Fame driver and Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip is among those expecting Logano to lead NASCAR's next generation of drivers.

"He's focused," Cindric said. "He's hungry. He has something to prove. I think those are all the same things Brad had when he came to our team."

For all of Penske's success — 73 Cup wins and Keselowski's elusive title — the garage hasn't always been harmonious.

Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman were as much rivals as teammates. Keselowski's three previous teammates in three years at Penske faded: Kurt Busch (anger issues and a mutual decision to part ways), AJ Allmendinger (drug suspension) and Sam Hornish (one top-10 in 20 starts last year).

But Keselowski already has a strong relationship with Logano. They've been spotted together at NFL games and visited U.S. troops in Cuba on the same 2011 USO trip.

"I don't know if anybody was lobbying any harder for Joey Logano than Brad Keselowski," McReynolds said.

And if the move pays off, Penske could keep its garage filled with trophies and its refrigerator stocked with orange juice and beer through 2013 and beyond.

Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Keselowski, Team Penske make smooth ride 02/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 10:55pm]
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