NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gave Brad Keselowski His Big Break in NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired from driving in 2017. However, he is still active in NASCAR through his Xfinity Series team, JR Motorsports, which has operated since 2005. During the summer of 2007, Earnhardt Jr. came across a promising young talent named Brad Keselowski and poached him for his organization. In the process, he gave the future Cup Series champion his first big break in NASCAR.

Brad Keselowski slowly rises through the ranks of NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) and Brad Keselowski (right)
Retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) and current NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski (right). It was Dale Jr. who gave Keselowski his first big break in NASCAR by letting him drive for his Xfinity Series team, JR Motorsports. | Todd Warshaw & Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

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The Keselowski family has been in motorsports since the 1960s, having operated a NASCAR team intermittently since 1969. It was inevitable that Brad would eventually get into racing in some capacity. In 2004, at the age of 20, Brad took his first steps into NASCAR, driving part of the Truck Series season for his family’s team, K-Automotive.

Brad raced the full 2005 season for K-Automotive before the team ran out of money and closed up shop temporarily. In the coming years, he bounced between several lower-series teams who were similarly strapped for cash. One of those was Keith Coleman Racing, who gave Keselowski his first Busch Series (as it was known at the time) ride in 2006.

None of the fly-by-night operations that Brad Keselowski drove for had the money or equipment to succeed. This was sadly reflected in his statistics. Entering the 2007 season, “Bad Brad” had only one career top-ten in NASCAR’s main series — a seventh-place finish at Daytona in 2005.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes notice of an upcoming NASCAR talent

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At the 2007 Busch Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski’s life would change forever in ways he wouldn’t recognize at the time. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not participate in the race, but he did attend. At one point, Keselowski made an aggressive maneuver, going to the high side of the track to pass the No. 88 of Shane Huffman — the car owned by Earnhardt Jr.

Even though it was Earnhardt’s car, he was impressed and took notice. Keselowski only finished 25th in the No. 23, but considering the performance of the car, it was still an admirable effort.

The next week at Bristol, Earnhardt Jr. replaced Huffman in the No. 88. His car’s hauler just happened to park next to the No. 23 hauler of Keselowski’s Coleman-owned car. This gave the two drivers an opportunity to chat.

“He said I reminded him, at least at that track, of how his dad used to drive it. I thought that was really cool,” wrote Keselowski on his personal blog in 2017. “He also told me, ‘Man I’d like to see you get an opportunity. It would be great. I wish I knew of one.’  And then we kind of just moved on.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. rides to Brad Keselowski’s rescue

Above: Brad Keselowski’s first NASCAR Cup Series win at Talladega in 2009

That June, Keith Coleman Racing went bankrupt, putting Keselowski out of a ride. This forced him to take up work as a spotter for other drivers for the next few weeks.

During one of those races — the Truck Series race at Milwaukee — Ted Musgrave rammed Kelly Bires into the wall during a caution flag in retaliation for a racing incident. In response, NASCAR handed Musgrave a one-race suspension. Musgrave’s team, Germain Racing, gave Keselowski the keys to the No. 9 truck for the next race at Memphis.

He took advantage of his opportunity, qualifying on the pole. He held the lead until lap 190 out of 200, when late contact caused him to fall back to 16th. Still, it was an impressive run, and someone very important was watching.

It just so happened that JR Motorsports was also looking for a new driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had given up on Shane Huffman after he wrecked the No. 88 Busch Series car one too many times. Keselowski’s performance at Memphis was more than enough to convince Earnhardt to put him in the car.

Keselowski drove out the remainder of the 2007 Busch Series season in the No. 88, picking up five top-ten finishes. Finally, Brad had the right equipment to guide him to success, and he had Dale Earnhardt Jr. to thank.