By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
The famous runner Steve Prefontaine was once quoted as saying, “Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.”

“Pre,” as he was called, would most certainly have enjoyed Brad Keselowski’s gutsy performance in Good Sam RV Insurance 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on August 7. Keselowski, sporting a broken left ankle swollen to roughly the size of a small tree, toughed it out for 500 miles to take the checkered flag at Pocono Raceway. 

“I came here to win. When you let the pain get into your head that far that you don't believe you can win anymore, you'll never win. And I woke up this morning feeling like we could win the race … If you don't feel that way, you're never going to win at anything you do,” he said in an interview after the race. 

That’s self-motivation, and it is a powerful thing, strong enough to get an injured athlete out of bed and ready to play when the rest of us would probably just reach for a box of tissues and call in sick for the day. 

Something about watching an athlete compete while injured fans the flames of support in American sports fans. They really don’t have to do it; most teams have at least a couple of support players for any given position, and management types generally support having a star sit out for a game or two rather than risk exacerbating the problem, and potentially jeopardizing the season. 

But NASCAR drivers are not so interchangeable. We see fill-ins and substitutions from time to time, in special circumstances like the road course race at Watkins Glen International on August 14, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, there’s one driver, one car, and no argument. 

They believe themselves to be irreplaceable, the only ones capable of getting the job done, and I honestly believe they would crawl to the starting grid on their hands and knees if that was what it took to get inside that car when it was time to race. Ask Mark Martin, who after suffering injuries to his knee and wrist, had his crew physically pick him up and set him in the car so he could race. 

There are times when athletes allow us to see beyond what they can do; we see what they’re made of. Skater Nancy Kerrigan won an Olympic medal just weeks after being clubbed in the knee, and images of Curt Schilling’s famous bloody sock as he helped pitch the 2004 Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years are almost as memorable as the actual win. 

Denny Hamlin won at Martinsville a couple of days before having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee. Then, just to prove the victory was no fluke, he came back and won at Texas just a couple weeks or so after the surgery. He’s stubborn that way. 

Schilling and Hamlin in particular aren’t exactly known for being warm and fuzzy types and could never be considered underdogs, but admit it; as you watched them navigate the seas of physical adversity, you couldn’t help but pull for them, just a little bit. 

Keselowski has managed to antagonize almost everyone in the garage and hasn’t exactly captured the hearts of the masses, but he showed us something new and rather unexpected at Pocono. 

We applauded his post-race comments about the U.S. military, when he self-deprecatingly said, “I might not be feeling great, but those are the guys that are really making sacrifices. We're just driving race cars for a living. We're not … saving the world like those guys are.”

He allowed us a brief backstage pass, a look past the aggressive driving style and sometimes sassy mouth to an inner room furnished with things like determination, motivation, and heart. Things are likely to change with the next on-track dust-up, but it was nice while it lasted. 

It is difficult to get a leg up on the competition when you only have one leg to work with, but Brad Keselowski made it happen. His personal behavior and his impressive performance at Pocono won him something more than a winner’s trophy and a rock-solid shot at making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It earned him a lot of respect. 

* * *  Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site: Contact Cathy