RICHMOND, Va. -- The initial meeting between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano came four years ago, and it involved hard feelings and raised middle digits. At Dover International Speedway, an 18-year-old Logano pulled onto the track for the first practice of his first Nationwide Series race weekend -- and did so right in front of Keselowski, cutting the Penske driver off. "I didn't know what I was doing," Logano admits now with a smile, though that didn't prevent him from catching a glimpse of a certain kind of birdie on the back straightaway.
It wouldn't be the only run-in between two drivers who were both young, both ambitious, both fighting for the same position on the race track, and both in line for bigger things. "We didn't like each other at first," Logano said.
"I would say that we probably got off to a rocky start," Keselowski added. "And we were both fighting for the same position in the sport. It was kind of an alpha male thing, for sure."
What a difference a few years can make. Earlier this week, Logano was announced as the new driver of Penske Racing's No. 22 car, signing a multi-year contract with the organization that will become his new home after he steps out of Joe Gibbs Racing equipment for the final time. The move will make him a teammate to Keselowski, who was far from a bystander in the process -- the driver of the No. 2 car encouraged his younger colleague to go after the job, got Logano the audience with owner Roger Penske and lobbied his team to make it all happen.
That chain of events is not only indicative of Keselowski's increasing influence at Penske, but also of the close relationship forged between two drivers who were once adversaries. Keselowski and Logano just seem to click, partly because of how close they are in age, partly because of the way they communicate -- and to a large degree, because they experienced at the same time the frustration of trying to stay afloat at NASCAR's highest and most competitive level. Whatever differences they once had melted away when they realized they shared the same struggle.
"I think we certainly got past that when we got to Cup and we both struggled," Keselowski said at Richmond International Raceway, where the dozen drivers who will compete in the season-ending championship Chase will be finalized Saturday night. "I think it reset. And if anything, the struggles we had entering the Cup Series probably brought us closer together, because we could relate to each other more than anyone else. I think that probably grew our relationship. While it might not have started on the right foot, I think it's stronger than ever now."
It's certainly easy to see the parallels. The youngest member of a racing family with its roots deep in NASCAR, Keselowski broke through with six victories for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide Series team, and used that as a springboard into the Sprint Cup Series ranks. At 26, he slid behind the wheel of Penske's No. 22 car, and endured a miserable campaign where he managed only a pair of top-10 finishes. A can't-miss prospect that had been talked up by the likes of Mark Martin since he was high school age, Logano landed a Cup ride with Gibbs when he was 19 and, despite terrific Nationwide success, struggled to make headway in the sport's top division.
For Keselowski, it took the right combination -- a move to Penske's flagship No. 2 car, and a pairing with crew chief Paul Wolfe -- to emerge as a consistent threat to win races and contend for the Cup championship. He sees similar potential in Logano, who has won twice in NASCAR's premier series and will step into a car in which former teammate Kurt Busch won twice before splitting with the organization after the 2011 season. AJ Allmendinger was the vehicle's regular driver until being released earlier this year because of a failed drug test, but he was only under a one-year contract, and it seems Keselowski may have had its eye on Logano all along.
"Probably 10 months in the making," he called the hire, the implication being that he viewed Allmendinger as a stopgap measure. Regular Penske Nationwide Series driver Sam Hornish Jr. has been piloting the No. 22 since Allmendinger's departure, and will do so the remainder of this season. Logano promises to bring stability in more ways than one, given his age and a clean off-track record that Keselowski made sure to point out.
"Joey is going to be a great move," said Keselowski, who has already clinched his spot in the Chase. "I think you're looking at a driver lineup next year where three of the four drivers are the youngest in the series, with [Nationwide driver] Ryan Blaney and Joey and myself .... I think that brings a lot of youth and vitality to Penske Racing, and that's probably something Penske Racing hasn't been known for in the past. So I'm encouraged by that. I like Joey's approach, and I think he has all the things it takes to be successful. For whatever reason, it didn't work at Gibbs. It's to me a fresh start for him, and he's bringing the right mentality to be successful."
For Logano, the move to Penske only makes official the relationship he and Keselowski have shared at the race track for some time. Even though they've worked for different teams and rival manufacturers, they've often compared notes and exchanged ideas. The friendship was strengthened by a morale-building USO trip the two made to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, following the 2011 season. When the No. 22 ride came open, Keselowski called Logano and urged him to put his name in contention for the job.
"I think it's a compliment to have somebody who's willing to go out there and take a chance on you, and being able to build a team," said Logano, who needs to win Saturday night to have any chance at making the Chase. "I think he sees that we were able to communicate together, and I think we can learn from each other and build the whole organization."
The Penske organization didn't set out to try and pair two young drivers together. Team president Tim Cindric said management was more focused on finding teammates who shared a chemistry, which they soon discovered was obvious between Keselowski and Logano.
"Brad had come to us last year and mentioned Joey's name. It felt as though he was certainly somebody he could work well with," Cindric said. "That chemistry, I think, is so important to not only have the crew chiefs and guys that can work together, but have the drivers that can communicate. Off the track, they need to be the ones helping the team go forward together rather than forcing the other people internally to pick a side. It needs to be Penske Racing. Once they get out on the race track, they can obviously sort out who wins the race. That's a big positive to this situation, the relationship that those two guys have developed."
Not bad for two drivers who were once at odds with one another, and view that initial run-in at Dover from a much different perspective. "We joke about that now," Logano said, laughing. Keselowski laughs about that time, too. But not about the potential he thinks he and his future teammate can unlock together, potential that was born from a bond forged through difficult times.
"I just have a feeling, man," Keselowski said. "Sometimes you just believe it."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.