By RICK MINTER
Brad Keselowski unofficially began the defense of his Sprint Cup championship last week during a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The reigning champion is in a rather unique position, as he’s starting out with a new manufacturer, Ford, replacing the Dodge he drove to the 2012 title, and he has a new teammate in Joey Logano.
Dodge dropped out of NASCAR after Keselowski’s Penske Racing team announced in mid-season that it was switching to Ford. Logano left his longtime employer, Joe Gibbs Racing, to take over the No. 22 at Penske from temporary driver Sam Hornish Jr.
A.J. Allmendinger started the 2012 season in the No. 22, but lost the ride after failing a drug test.
Keselowski told reporters at Charlotte that it’s a little too soon to say how the new Ford Fusion will compare to the Dodge Charger he drove to the title.
“It’s hard to get a great read on the whole manufacturer change because, obviously, it’s a different car, but I think all the signs are there that we have the potential to be just as strong, if not stronger, than we were last year, which is very, very encouraging,” he said. “We still have to work for it and make it happen, but the signs are there.”
He also sounded positive about Logano.
“It’s been a lot of fun having the first day today working with Joey, which I think has been probably more of an adjusting process than the actual car itself, and a good adjusting process. I’m curious to see over time how we can work together and push each other to be the best we can be.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with that so far. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Keselowski said the early signs indicate that the affiliation with Ford will pay dividends.
“I think the level of engagement from the Ford camp is very, very high, which is extremely encouraging and that’s from the top on down,” he said. “That makes me feel more confident than anything else because at the end of the day, this is a people sport. You look at the cars and you look at the aero or whatever it might take to be the best you can be, and those things tend to work themselves out when you have the best people, and when you have people that are engaged and all are sharing a common goal and work ethic.”
Keselowski also said he believes that he can learn from Logano, even though he has just two Sprint Cup wins to Keselowski’s nine and has never finished better than 16th in the points standings.
“I feel like there are a lot of areas that I can improve and be better, and I think there are things Joey does right out of the gate that are better than what I do,” Keselowski said. “I think he has the ability to unload at a place like [Charlotte Motor Speedway] and just instantly be fast, and that’s not my style.
“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.”
The reigning champ went on to say that he plans to put teamwork and hard work ahead of wearing his champion’s hat next season.
“I think that Joey is an elite talent in this sport, and if we can work together that we will both be better,” he 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 the whole field does, 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.”
Keselowski also said he hopes to keep his crew motivated in 2013, not letting them rest on their championship accomplishments. He said the switch to a new manufacturer can help with that.
“One of the best advantages of switching to Ford is it gives us something to prove all over again, that we can continue to be successful no matter what the manufacturer or no matter what the circumstance is and I think that’s very healthy,” he said.