By the time Brad Keselowski climbs into his No. 2 Dodge for today's Ford EcoBoost 400, he will have watched his favorite prerace video once, twice, perhaps three times. In it, Ray Lewis, arguably the NFL's fiercest linebacker, says to "chase your legacy every second of your life" and to "leave your mark to endure forever." So what if Lewis' pitch is simply an ad for a video game. For Keselowski, the message, which Lewis delivers with preacher-like fervor, is what is important. "He brings a level of passion that is really unparalleled in his sport," Keselowski said. "It's kind of a mix of old-school mental prep that just fascinates me. I want to bring that same passion and intensity to NASCAR."
As for leaving his mark, Keselowski has the opportunity at Homestead-Miami Speedway as he needs only a 15th-place finish to clinch his first Sprint Cup title in just his third full season in NASCAR's premier series.
Keselowski, 28, who leads five-time champ Jimmie Johnson by 20 points, also clinches by finishing 16th with a lap led or 17th with the most laps led.
Interesting note: Keselowski this season has finished worse than 15th only six times.
"It's been a long road from where I started," said the native of Rochester Hills, Mich. "My success is attributed to a constant desire to improve. That's how I've got to where I'm at, and that's how I believe I'll continue to be successful, with a commitment to improve every day."
Keselowski isn't kidding about a long road. As team owner Roger Penske said, Bob and Kay Keselowski "mortgaged everything for their kids to go racing."
Keselowski remembers using space heaters at home during the winter to save on electric bills while the family financed the K Automotive racing team.
After the team folded, Keselowski went track to track asking for rides, his big break coming in 2007 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave him a chance with his Nationwide series team.
Keselowski signed with Penske at the end of 2009 and his career exploded as he won the 2010 Nationwide championship.
"Sure, there were a bunch of moments when I thought I wasn't going to make it," he said.
Being part of a gold-plated team certainly helped reverse those trends. But Keselowski had an edge: knowledge from working with his family's race team.
"He understands his car," Hall of Fame driver Rusty Wallace said. "I've always said in order to be successful on a consistent basis you've got to understand the damn car. He can probably set that car up himself because he's been there, done that. That's my sole reason he's been as consistent as he's been."
"He's passionate about the sport and he wants to be involved," said Penske, 75, who also seeks his first Sprint Cup title. "Brad has not only pushed me as an individual, he's pushed the team in a positive direction. And he's delivering."
Wallace said Keselowski's ability to avoid wrecks by not unnecessarily challenging drivers who are known to crash is a sign of maturity and smarts.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe said Keselowski, who has five wins, is a master reading the pulse of a race and when to make a move.
Keselowski also talks to Penske every day about everything from the team's personnel moves to upgrading the fitness center.
"A lot of raw talent," Johnson said. "He has a hunger to learn the sport on a lot of levels and a desire that's admirable."
"To be a champion, you can't be at the bottom of the pecking order," Keselowski said. "You have to fight your way to the top. These guys aren't just going to throw away their seat, so you have to take it."
Ray Lewis could not have said it better.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.