Defy The Odds: For Brad Keselowski, one race changed everything

Brad Keselowski (9) subbed for the suspended Ted Musgrave at the 2007 Memphis Truck race. - Getty Images

If Ted Musgrave hadn't been suspended for retaliating against Kelly Bires in a 2007 NASCAR Truck race, Brad Keselowski might not be on the verge of winning his first Sprint Cup Series championship.

Brad Keselowski was going nowhere fast.

At age 23, for the second time in less than two years, Keselowski had lost his ride in NASCAR. In early 2006, his family team went bankrupt and was forced to pull out of NASCAR's Truck Series; then, in June 2007, Keselowski lost his Nationwide Series ride when Keith Coleman Racing shut down.

It was a shame for Keselowski, a driver who was considered to have potential but never had a real opportunity to prove himself.

But suddenly, a Truck race at the Milwaukee Mile changed his entire career – and Keselowski wasn't even in the race.

During the June 22, 2007 race at Milwaukee, Ted Musgrave was wrecked when Kelly Bires got loose, sending both drivers slamming into the wall. Incensed, Musgrave then rammed Bires into the wall again after they'd already crashed.

You can see the incident in question by fast-forwarding to the 12-minute mark of the video below:

Musgrave was parked by NASCAR and then suspended for the next week's race at Memphis – meaning Germain Racing needed a fill-in driver for one race.

Among those to immediately recommend Keselowski were Mark Martin and Todd Bodine. Sure enough, Germain took their advice and hired Keselowski to drive its No. 9 truck at Memphis.

Finally in a top-tier ride for the first time, Memphis was Keselowski's one golden opportunity.

"That was the key moment," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who later hired him to drive at JR Motorsports.

"I knew that was his shot," said Dawn Nicholas, Keselowski's sister. "I knew it."

Keselowski was virtually anonymous outside the garage area at the time, but he made his presence known to everyone watching the Truck race that night.

He won the pole and led the first 19 laps, then had led 43 of 44 late-race laps until this happened with 10 to go (fast-forward to the 6:20 mark):

Keselowski was spun by Travis Kvapil, and his chance of a lifetime had seemingly gone up in smoke. Keselowski finished 16th in what was a crushing setback.

"It was about the most heartbreaking loss you could ever have," said Nicholas, his sister. "I watched it, standing in front of the TV, and I was in tears, because I knew it was a big moment."

Even Kvapil, who won the race, expressed regret because he was a "huge fan" of Keselowski. Fortunately, he wasn't the only one.

Earnhardt Jr. was watching that night and was wildly impressed with a driver who was already on his radar. NASCAR's biggest star had paid attention when Keselowski qualified 12th at Bristol with a subpar car earlier that season, and he also remembered how Keselowski moved around on the track during an Atlanta race to find speed in the car.

But the Memphis race convinced Earnhardt Jr. he had to act quickly.

"You just see people have glimpses of potential and then he got that opportunity there and made the most of it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He would have won that race had he not been spun out."

It prompted Earnhardt Jr. to call Keselowski and offer him a ride in JR Motorsports' No. 88 car. The rest, as they say, is history.

"I felt like when I was calling him that I was probably not the only one at that moment," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Whether I was or not, I don't know, but I felt like he brought a lot of awareness to himself and his opportunities and potential to a lot of people – not just myself."

Keselowski won races at JRM, became a Nationwide champion at Penske Racing and is now on the verge of his first Cup title at age 28.

But what if Musgrave had never lost his cool and retaliated toward Bires? What if NASCAR hadn't suspended Musgrave and Keselowski never got the opportunity to race that Truck?

Earnhardt Jr. said Keselowski "probably would have made it still," but it might not have happened anytime soon.

"It might have taken a little while to get that opportunity," he said.

But plenty of drivers in NASCAR's long history have never gotten more than one shot, and there's a chance Keselowski may have ended up without a ride for good had he not proven himself at Memphis.

Even Keselowski's sister isn't sure what would have happened if Musgrave hadn't been suspended.

"I don't know," Nicholas said. "None of us may be where we are right now, that's for sure."

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