<
>

Penske Racing's new 1-2 punch

How much more dynamic a duo could you ask for, to go out and fight the dark forces of humdrum at Cup level, than Bad Brad and the Dinger?

Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger, together, are sure to make Penske Racing the most entertaining it has ever been.

"He's got a lot of personality, a lot of energy -- just like I do," Allmendinger said. "And it's gonna be fun."

For everybody -- right on up into the grandstands and out into the living rooms.

"He is, I think, more of an extrovert than I am," Keselowski said -- and when I glanced at him to see where his tongue was implanted in his cheek, he stuck it in even deeper. "I don't consider myself an extrovert."

Please.

And as pure drivers, they just might bring Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship. Maybe even this year.

Some of you hooted a few weeks ago when I picked Keselowski to win it all and Allmendinger to make the Chase. The Dinger is, after all, winless in Cup -- but only thus far. Bad Brad has four Cup wins -- but three last summer.

What we see now is both at the brink of stardom. Neither Keselowski, who'll turn 28 this month, nor Allmendinger, 30, has even remotely peaked.

Not since Rick Mears in Indy car racing have I sensed Roger Penske believing so completely in a driver as he does Keselowski. And Brad K. adds more pizzazz for Penske's sponsors than the methodical Mears did.

Keselowski is "a great commodity for us; a great product; he'll be a great star," Penske said.

Primary sponsor Miller Lite would seem to agree, re-upping on the Blue Deuce through 2015.

In hiring Allmendinger, Penske looked deeper than the results, to "the basic performance, and looked at his curve ..."

The Dinger has been knocked around hard in NASCAR since leaving Champ Car in 2006 with a five-win season, including three in a row. But we saw in his time with Richard Petty Motorsports that, as he puts it now, "I've learned how to run up front. Hopefully now at Penske I have the opportunity to learn how to close these races."

Although in a different form of racing, Allmendinger got back into a winner's mindset this past weekend, co-driving to victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Driver compatibility? Penske's No. 1 consultant in hiring Allmendinger to replace Kurt Busch, who left under tension after last season, was Keselowski.

"I would never hire another driver to replace Kurt without having a lot of conversation with Brad, and most certainly Brad was in the decision-making," said Penske, who then sent Keselowski recruiting.

"He was instrumental in talking to AJ about coming to the team, giving him some insight," Penske said.

On Allmendinger's résumé, "You gotta like the progress," Keselowski said. "I think that's what this sport's all about."

Penske never really stops thinking about the Indy 500, which his drivers have won 15 times, so he seemed to be only half-joking when he said of the NASCAR hiring process, "Secretly I said if they have the double [an arrangement whereby a driver can compete in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on the same day], maybe I could get him to run at Indianapolis because he's a NASCAR guy who can drive open-wheel."

"I have big shoes to fill," Allmendinger said. "Kurt is one of the best guys out there. For sure, when it comes to outright speed, outright driving a Sprint Cup car."

Keselowski can and will help Allmendinger get there.

"The biggest thing to me," Allmendinger said, "is that he's here to help. He's not just about himself, trying to make sure he shows everybody up and he runs well."

Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe have gotten more and more synchronized since their Nationwide Series days together. How compatible are they?

"You see what [Chad] Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have done," Penske said. "And I think that's what we'll see with Paul Wolfe and Brad."

My only qualm about picking Brad K. to win the title was that Penske is a two-car team -- the only two Dodges in Cup at that -- up against the four-car armadas of Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway. (Rick Hendrick already has said flat-out that he'll be disappointed if HMS doesn't put all four cars in the Chase and win the championship.)

But Keselowski's reasoning is persuasive.

"There are no four-car teams in NASCAR," he said. "There are a lot of two-car teams, a few one-car teams, and a couple of pairings of two-car teams. ... Just look at Hendrick. You go up there and there's two separate shops (of two-car units). ... There are no four-car teams. It's not a successful model. It doesn't work.

I'm a race driver, not a psychiatrist. Kurt was a very good teammate. And he didn't get a lot of credit for that. He really didn't. And so I'm not about to kick a man while he's down.

-- Brad Keselowski on Kurt Busch

"Each team takes roughly 100 people to run it. You cannot get 400 people to work together. It doesn't happen. They're running all different directions. It's a struggle in itself to get two teams to work together.

"So I feel zero competitive disadvantage to four-car teams. Zero."

That's the highly assertive sort of leadership that makes Keselowski not just clearly the new leader at Penske with Busch gone but also an emerging leader of all Cup drivers.

Yet Keselowski is never really shooting from the hip -- he just gives that illusion.

Somebody asked him why Busch is "so angry."

"I'm a race driver, not a psychiatrist," Keselowski said. "Kurt was a very good teammate. And he didn't get a lot of credit for that. He really didn't. And so I'm not about to kick a man while he's down."

Last fall, Penske put both Busch and Keselowski into the Chase. At one point, Brad K. was at the brink of charging from behind to make a serious run at the Cup. On paper, he fell off in the last four races to finish fifth in the standings.

But beneath the surface, it wasn't so much a fall-off as an aggressive mistake. After falling behind in the points, going down the stretch run of the Chase, "We probably took a step too far out on the ledge [in car setups] to trying and get it back -- which is what you have to do," Keselowski said.

"We could have stayed back and run a normal approach, and that probably would have gotten us third in the points.

"I wasn't interested in that. Third or fifth, there's maybe a little bit of money difference, but the trophy was about the same to me. I was interested in doing what we could to make a run at winning it, and we overstepped a bit and we fell off a couple races."

He had made the Chase off a strong and gutsy summer, three wins -- two of them after suffering an ankle fracture in a crash in testing. And perhaps his most impressive performance of 2011 was finishing second at Watkins Glen, doing all that clutching and braking on a road course with the bad ankle.

I've said all along that Keselowski's aggressiveness on the track is in the mode of the young Dale Earnhardt. And to find more pizzazz and innate leadership in a driver personality, you have to go all the way back to a young Darrell Waltrip. Add to that a bootstraps background in a hardworking racing family that the grassroots fans can relate to.

What more could NASCAR ask for, in this, the year it strives for a great revival in interest?

And who better as his sidekick than Dinger (he likes that nickname, because his surname is such a handful), whom Richard Petty once chewed out for being too aggressive too early?

Holy roaring crowds, Batman! The dynamism of this duo will be dazzling.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.