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Brad Keselowski just being himself

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Funny thing about the way the proverbial wind blows in NASCAR.

Sometimes it blows you to a rare pole, what Matt Kenseth earned for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway. Sometimes it blows you to a bad day, as Jeff Gordon had when his primary car hit the wall during Friday's qualifying.

But always, as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson reminds us, "the wind blows the [hardest] atop the flagpole."

Deep thoughts.

But the words are appropriate after a week in which reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano were blown away with penalties for using unapproved rear-end housings at Texas Motor Speedway.

Have other teams pushed this gray area that got the Penske drivers 25-point deductions and the possibility of losing seven key team members if they lose their appeal? Possibly. Probably.

But when you're coming off a championship -- when you are at the top of the flagpole -- the magnifying glass is more focused on you and your team than any other.

You become a target.

You become an even bigger target when you're as outspoken as Keselowski has been throughout his career, as he was especially after the Texas race, when he questioned NASCAR's integrity for confiscating the rear housings from the Penske cars about an hour before the race.

It's why Johnson said during the preseason media tour that the 29-year-old Keselowski still needed to mature.

"As mature as he wants to portray himself as, he has some growing to do," Johnson said in February. "Now he is in the spotlight as the champion, and I think we all sit back and chuckle at times at some of the things he says and does.

"He is a great guy. He has the best of intentions for our sport, for his sponsor, for his team. He just needs to mature a little."

Johnson and others who have been in Keselowski's shoes reiterated those comments this weekend as they prepare for a race that has been overshadowed by the midweek penalties.

"I'm not taking a slam on him," Johnson said. "I've been through it. I've in my ways made mistakes. Fortunately, I had a second try at it and a third try. I'm still learning. You just learn as experience goes on. He's on the fast track for experience right now."

And Penske Racing is on the fast track to learning just how deep its organization is. If the appeal is lost, Keselowski and Logano will be without their crew chief, car chief, lead engineer and competition director for six weeks.

And there's a good chance Penske will lose because it worked in an area NASCAR repeatedly has warned was off limits.

The best way to send a message to the rest of the garage is to penalize the team on top of the flagpole.

Penske soon may have to rely on people it hasn't had to, perhaps dipping into its Nationwide Series program for support. The repercussions will last far beyond the suspension if the team falls behind due to the loss of personnel.

It will be tough, even for a driver such as Keselowski, who has shown more mental fortitude the past few years than most.

Sunday will be a test. Keselowski qualified 33rd, the first time he has started outside the top 16 all season, well above his season starting average of 8.6. Logano will start 22nd.

Neither was fast in Saturday's first practice, with Logano 31st and Keselowski 28th. It makes you wonder if the distractions of the past week, of preparing for an appeal that will take key team members away from their daily duties, already has had an impact.

The wind that seemingly always blows strong in Kansas, a state that has the second-highest potential for wind power behind Texas, is swirling at the top of the flagpole.

"We all deal with things differently," Johnson said. "I still think he's learning his way in some levels. I've had the good fortune of keeping my mouth shut or taken the high road, and learn that way. That's not how he operates.

"I'm not taking a dig on him. It's probably a bump in the road, being an outspoken person. That's some of the issues he's probably going through."

These are issues other past champions have gone through. Winning a title sometimes creates a feeling of empowerment, that your opinions matter more.

And they do.

But there also are limits to how far a champion can push his opinions, just as there are limits to how far a crew chief can push the gray areas. Even Keselowski admitted he could have been "calmer" in his post-Texas tirade.

But as Johnson and Gordon have learned, as they insist Keselowski will, it's a process.

"We all learn from our experiences, and not all of them are good," said Gordon, a four-time champion who will start last after having to go to a backup car. "Sometimes we push the limits, whether it be on the race car or on the racetrack, and sometimes you do it in the things that we say and our opinions.

We all love how outspoken Brad is, but being that outspoken can sometimes get you in trouble. In this case, it's probably been a pretty valuable lesson for a young guy, a new champion.

-- Jeff Gordon

"We all love how outspoken Brad is, but being that outspoken can sometimes get you in trouble. In this case, it's probably been a pretty valuable lesson for a young guy, a new champion."

Kenseth may be the exception to the rule. He was soft-spoken and non-controversial before winning the 2003 championship and has remained that way.

But one of the things he likes about Keselowski is that he speaks his mind, even when what he says creates controversy.

"Look, the sport is made up of a lot of different personalities, and that's a good thing," Kenseth said after winning his ninth career pole. "You go on for years where everybody complains how everybody's boring, everybody's vanilla . . . they all toe the company line.

"Everybody has said stuff they wish they could take back. I don't know if that's the case with Brad. He says pretty much what's on his mind. That's what makes him Brad."

The wind is blowing strong in Penske's camp these days. It's blowing stronger because of Keselowski.

That's not a bad thing. Keselowski's passion and willingness to put himself on an island are part of why he is a champion. When he says the strong will survive on this matter, you believe it.

"He has a strong respect and following from the fan base because of that," Johnson said. "All of our paths have pros and cons to it. For the longest time mine led me down the vanilla road. His is leading him toward the rocky road."

Deep again. Almost the kind of depth we expect more from Keselowski than Johnson.
But Johnson has that depth because he understands the intense pressure Keselowski and his team are under. He understands how tough it will be in the coming weeks, having dealt with a similar situation a year ago, when crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were suspended for six weeks.

Although the suspensions were overturned on appeal, Johnson understands the distractions of dealing with everything around it.

"It's tough," he said. "I at least, when it happened, walked around with I felt like a black cloud over my head. It's not a position you want to be. It isn't. Nobody wants to be in it."

But when you're on top of the flagpole, as Keselowski and Penske Racing are, it's a position where they'll find you, because that's where the wind blows the hardest.