Brad Keselowski has a new paint scheme, one that incorporates more white on both the front quarter and even the wheels of the Blue Deuce. He has a new car model, a Ford to replace the Dodge he's driven the last three years. He even has a new firesuit, one he helped design himself. It all seems appropriate for the new Sprint Cup champion, who heads into a new NASCAR season having clearly asserted himself as one of the top drivers in his sport.
And yet, there are some areas in which he feels his new teammate, Joey Logano, is even better than him.
"I think he has the ability to unload at a place like this and just instantly be fast, and that's not my style," Keselowski said earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, during a two-day test of 2013 Sprint Cup cars. "It's something that I would like to add to my arsenal, because there are times where that's really, really helpful, so those are some of the things I look at."
Indeed, of all the changes the reigning champion is experiencing over this brief offseason -- not in the least being a serious bump in both his bank account and public profile -- among the most significant might be his stable mate at Penske Racing. After a year of upheaval, with the ousted Kurt Busch giving way to the released AJ Allmendinger giving way to the fill-in Sam Hornish Jr., in comes Logano, whose age matches the number on the side of his No. 22 car. He'll try to bring a little stability to that ride, as well as follow his new teammate's evolution from Sprint Cup race winner to title contender.
When Keselowski was 22, he was still trying to make it in part-time Nationwide and Truck Series rides. Even so, these teammates six years apart share some similarities. Both arrived at a relatively young age, both won a Sprint Cup event early in their careers, both hit rough patches attempting to take the next step. Thanks to a pairing with crew chief Paul Wolfe, Keselowski was able to break through. Logano is still trying to get there, but Keselowski thought enough of his talent that he effectively orchestrated the hiring once it became clear that Penske would look beyond the organization to fill the seat in the No. 22. Indeed, it was the shared struggle of trying to stay afloat at NASCAR's top level that make them friends before they became teammates.
Now they're linked together, and both drivers have plenty of skin in the game -- Logano gets another opportunity with a top Sprint Cup outfit (following four years with Joe Gibbs Racing), while Keselowski gets a chance to back up the clout he's built within a team that's allowed him more influence in decision-making as his career has blossomed. It was Keselowski who urged Logano to put his name in contention for the No. 22, who arranged the audience with owner Roger Penske, who pushed and pulled until it happened.
Which means that Logano's results in 2013 and beyond will reflect not just on himself, but also on his teammate in the No. 2 car. Not surprisingly, Keselowski is a true believer in Logano's abilities, and thinks having a teammate with which he shares so much in common -- not to mention has something to prove -- will push both of them to improve, even in the wake of Penske's first championship in NASCAR's premier series.
"At the end of the day, I think that Joey is an elite talent in this sport, and if we can work together that we will both be better," Keselowski said. "I would rather finish second to him next year in every race, and even the championship, than to rest on my laurels, not get any better and ... run fifth, 10th, 15th, 17th -- whatever it might be -- and beat him. I think it's that spirit that is going to drive us to be the best we can."
Logano is no longer the third driver alongside two older, more experienced, and more decorated peers, as he was at Gibbs. He and Keselowski seem to have already forged a closer bond than the new champion shared with any of his past teammates at Penske -- not surprisingly, given their preexisting friendship. Logano said he and Keselowski spoke in the weeks following Homestead to lay out a plan for 2013, but the Charlotte test was the first time they were able to really gauge their working relationship. Clearly, the information is flowing both ways.
"[It] was the first time we worked together at the race track driving a race car and then sitting down with him and talking about, 'What do you think about this? What's your car doing?' Back and forth, and it's been really good," Logano said. "The lines of communication have been very open between both teams, and I'm really excited about that. I think that's definitely one of the biggest things I like over there right now. I think that's definitely cool having Brad working with me and vice versa. I think it's going to be good. I'm excited about it. They include me a lot, even with the decisions on personnel, so I like how they include the driver a lot."
They're already picking up ideas from one another. Keselowski likes Logano's off-the-truck speed; Logano likes the way Keselowski approaches longer runs. Of course, two test days can't replicate the rigors of an entire season, especially one that's still two months away. But in the early going, at least, both of these new teammates are learning things about one another that they hope to apply to their own cars when the racing resumes for real.
"It's really cool to have a teammate that's a student of the sport, that really studies it and will push me to do things differently. I think the coolest thing that Brad is able to do is he's able to think outside of the box -- like way outside the box. I think that's interesting to me, to see the way his mind works," Logano said.
"I've learned a lot the last couple days, and the ways he thinks through a race car is a little bit different than normal, and I think that's cool. I think it's good to have a little bit of both on a team, so I can learn a lot on the way he leads a team and drives a race car and the way he sets up his car. ... There are a lot of different things. The way he drives his car is a little bit different than me, too. Taking some of his techniques, I've tried them out there and there are pros and cons to everything, but it gives me a few more tools to work with when I'm out there."
The shared tactics will come with time, trial and error. For now, though, Logano's arrival only solidifies the fact that Keselowski swings a very big stick within his organization, what with a Sprint Cup on the mantle -- at the shop, that is; the driver doesn't keep any trophies in his house -- a handpicked teammate, and the ear of a team owner who prizes the kind of performance the new champ has delivered. All that remains is the matter of indoctrinating Logano into the Penske fold. Toward that end, Keselowski has an idea.
"The best way I can break in Joey is to get him one of those championship glasses and take him out for night," he said, referring to his beer-soaked celebration that followed the championship clincher at Homestead last month. "I think he'd really enjoy that, and I'd really enjoy it. Too soon?"
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