Brian Keselowski needed to make it around Daytona International Speedway just three more times.
Stay calm, he told himself. Just breathe. Don't screw up the restart. Just don't screw it up!
But he was failing – at least on the "stay calm" part. He was anything but calm. And he couldn't see a damn thing.
"I was crying," he said, "inside the car."
Crying at 200 mph is what happens when you're only three laps away from seeing your impossible dream turn into a stunning reality.
Against all odds and expectations – including his own – Brian Keselowski will race in Sunday's Daytona 500. The path he took to get there was longer than most.
Somewhere deep inside, Keselowski knew this was likely the end. After a miserable year of pulling start-and-parks in the Nationwide Series just to collect a check and keep his K Automotive Motorsports team afloat, Keselowski had decided that, barring a miracle, this was it.
"If I can't make this work where I can race," he had decided, "then I don't want to do it anymore."
He was sick of starting and parking. Sick of being uncompetitive. And so he decided to attempt the Daytona 500 – an all-in gamble that had little chance of paying off. If it didn't work out, he said, it would be "our last race for awhile."
These days, K Automotive Motorsports consists of exactly two people: Brian Keselowski and his father, Bob. There used to be a couple more employees, but Brian could no longer afford to pay them anything, and they went their separate ways in the offseason.
Two years ago, the Keselowskis had purchased an old Cup car that once belonged to Evernham Racing. It has no business being on a Cup racetrack, but the father/son team bought it with the intention of converting it to a Nationwide Series car to see if they could somehow stay afloat.
When their lack of Nationwide success last season left them with few options financially, the Keselowskis decided to take the Cup car to Daytona for what may have been one last hurrah.
Their chances, obviously, were slim. Under the hood was an old Ganassi-built engine that lacked so much horsepower, it might even have trouble competing in the ARCA series.
Brian – a round, bespeckled 29-year-old with a closely-cropped haircut – had always been the primary mechanic on his own car. It was no different now.
He began working on race cars at 12 years old, even before he began racing at the late age of 18. On the Daytona car – the only one the team owns – Keselowski installed the seat, the engine and the suspension himself.
"I don't really want to have it any other way," he said, then smiled and added, "Although I'd like to have a little extra help every now and then."
But when it came time to leave for Daytona, he wasn't even sure he wanted to make the trip. The thought of being completely uncompetitive was embarrassing.
"We knew we were just going to struggle along, and if it makes it, it makes it," he said. "We put so much money and time into the car that we had to come no matter what."
So they came. They saw. And they did not conquer.
Instead, K Automotive's car was tortoise-slow.
Keselowski had the slowest car in all four practice sessions leading up to Thursday's Gatorade Duel races, which determined the starting field for the Daytona 500. He was so far off the pace that in the final practice, his best lap was nearly 19 mph behind than the leaders.
"We ran all week long and just really ran like crap," he said. "Nothing we did could make this thing any faster."
The Keselowskis enlisted some help. His uncle drove to Daytona Beach from Michigan on Monday to assist in putting the car together, and friends from Pennsylvania and New York showed up in Daytona to participate on the pit crew. Brian was thankful for the contributions, but realistic about his chances despite the hard work.
So when he woke up on Thursday morning, Brian knew he might be better off playing Powerball than trying to make the Daytona 500. It was the longest of longshots.
"We were so far out in qualifying, man," said his father, Bob. "Without someone pushing us, we were going to be dead meat."
Fortunately, there happened to be someone who could fill that role.
Brotherly Love...And War
Over the last two years, 27-year-old Brad Keselowski has become a household name in NASCAR. And in some ways, it was at his older brother's expense.
After winning an ARCA race in 2006, Brian said he had spoken with Keith Coleman Racing about getting a shot in the Nationwide Series. But when Brian wasn't eligible to drive one of the races, Coleman put Brad in the car instead.
Brad eventually parlayed the opportunity into a full-time ride at JR Motorsports, then moved to Penske Racing last season where he ran a full Sprint Cup schedule and won the Nationwide Series championship.
The way everything unfolded left Brian harboring some jealousy and resentment toward his younger brother. He couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if Brad hadn't ended up in Coleman's car.
"I feel like if roles could have been reversed, there's a possibility I could be in the same position he's in now," Brian said. "There's no guarantees. I would have liked the chance."
The brothers had been vying for the exact same position at the same time, Brian said, and only one could get it. And as roommates, the two continued to clash – both personally and physically.
"I'm not sure if we dreamed about (both racing in the Daytona 500)," Brad said, "but I did dream about the day that we didn't beat each other up."
These days, the brothers don't talk as much as they used to. Though Brian lives in Brad's old townhouse on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s property, Brad's busy schedule keeps them apart.
"He's off doing his own thing, I'm off doing my thing," Brian said. "We don't see each other very much. Until the driver's introductions (before the race), I don't think I saw him half a minute all weekend.
"We don't really have a lot of communication together."
They did have a bit of communication prior to the Gatorade Duels, though. And it went like this:
Brian: "If you can get behind me and push me, that's great."
Brad: "I don't think you're fast enough."
Brian: "You're right."
Brad did impart some advice on where to run on the track, what Brian needed to do to keep his car in line and how to stay smooth and steady if there was someone pushing him.
But neither brother thought the pusher would be Brad himself.
The Flying Keselowski Brothers
When the green flag dropped on the 150-mile Duel race, Brian was – of course – slow. Cars don't just suddenly get faster because the driver has more desire than the next guy.
He languished at the back of the pack and was in the 18th position with 22 laps to go – well behind where he needed to be to claim one of the two Daytona 500 transfer spots.
But then, a funny thing happened: Brad spun out, causing a caution and leaving both brothers at the back of the field at the same time.
And as the race restarted, Brad lined up his No. 2 car behind Brian's No. 92 – and began to push.
As it turned out, Brad's car hadn't been very fast all day, either. He couldn't keep up with most of the cars ahead of him – and therefore couldn't act as a pusher in the tricky Daytona draft.
But Brian's car was even slower than Brad's. So the brothers began working together – Brad pushing, Brian steering – and off they went.
"I mean, hell, I ain't got any other friends," Brad said with a laugh. "So you try to make ‘em where you can."
Brian sliced and diced through the various two-car pairings. Brad put his Dodge power behind his brother – and never left his rear bumper.
"He did a better job through the draft than Jeff Gordon did," Brad said. "He's good at this."
By the time another caution flag flew with eight laps to go, the Keselowski boys were improbably both in the top 10. All Brian needed to do was finish as one of the top two non-qualified cars, and he'd be in the Super Bowl of stock car racing.
And there were only three laps left.
"I knew if he just stayed with me – all he had to do is stay with me – we'd get in it," Brian said.
This time, the Keselowski brothers weren't splitting up. With a common goal – and their proud father perched atop a Cup Series pit box calling the shots for the first time since the 1970's – Brad and Brian proved two Keselowskis were better than one.
Brad kept pushing Brian – all the way to the finish line – where Brian finished fifth.
And the tears kept flowing.
On pit road, Brian climbed from his car, leaned on the roof and buried his head in his arms, overwhelmed by the moment and the sheer magnitude of what had just happened.
Brad came over to his older brother, leaned in and said, "Good job."
Brian had a hard time stopping the tears. When he did, he couldn't stop smiling.
"Every racer that's ever driven anything in their whole life wants to run the Daytona 500," he said, the joy bursting from every inch of his soul. "This just goes to show ‘em, it doesn't matter what kind of car you get, what kind of anything you get. If you can put it together, you've got a chance at this."
Brad stood a few yards away and smiled, letting his brother bask in the spotlight.
"I can't say I've always been there for all my family, but you try to be there when you can," Brad said. "I helped them today, and it feels really good."
Suddenly, the possibilities were endless in Brian's mind. He could pay off his bills, for one (last place in the 2010 Daytona 500 paid more than $260,000). Maybe even race at Phoenix next week. Heck, what if he got a sponsor?
"Things like that are what our sport's about," veteran driver Jeff Burton said. "Our sport's about passion, it's about desire, it's about staying up till 4 in the morning worrying about what's going to happen. It's about having dirt underneath your fingernails working."
And it's about dreams. Brian Keselowski had one – and now, it's come true.