Keselowski Emulates Others, Like Bonnett, Who Won While Hurt
Brad Keselowski’s ongoing run of success while driving hurt ranks among the most remarkable in NASCAR history.
Since fracturing his left ankle in a crash while testing at Road Atlanta on Aug. 3, the driver of Penske Racing’s No. 2 Dodge has triumphed twice, placed second and finished third in four races.
He’ll be among the favorites this weekend when the Cup Series teams are at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the AdvoCare 500.
Keselowski, 27, emerged from the wreck on the road course in Georgia suffering a knot the size of a softball on the injured ankle. He also sustained soreness in the back.
It seemed hardly possible that he could run, much less do so competitively.
But run Keselowski has, driving himself to the cusp of making the field for The Chase, the "playoff" which will decide the rich Cup Series championship.
Keselowski’s grit brings to mind the fortitude - some would say gluttony for punishment - of others who ignored injuries to be among the gentlemen starting their engines.
Richard Petty drove several races in the 1970s, including at Alabama's dangerous, ultrafast Talladega Superspeedway, with a broken bone in his neck.
King Richard kept the injury secret from NASCAR officials for fear they would sideline him.
Dale Earnhardt drove agonizingly hurt several times, once hiding an awful “barrel fracture” of the knee from NASCAR lest he be sent to the sideline.
Perhaps most famously, Earnhardt competed at the Watkins Glen road course in New York in 1996 despite a broken shoulder. Although he had to shift gears in the turns, Earnhardt won the pole and finished fifth in the race.
However, probably the late Neil Bonnett accomplished the greatest “tough man” feat in NASCAR history early in the 1988 season.
Bonnett, the affable, immensely popular Alabamian, won three straight races while nursing a horrendous leg injury.
Included was a triumph in the Goodyear 500K, an event that opened The Thunderdome, Australia’s first superspeedway, which was located near Melbourne.
Bonnett was hurt when a tire failed on his car in the Oakwood Homes 500 on Oct. 11, 1987 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He slammed savagely into the fourth-turn wall, and his Pontiac continued along, scraping the barrier, to almost the start/finish line.
Bonnett's right hip was broken and his right leg fractured in several places. He essentially was pinned in the wrecked car and it took an emergency crew almost a half-hour to extract him. Bonnett was in such pain that a doctor crawled into the car and gave Neil a shot to ease his suffering.
The prognosis was not good.
It initially appeared that Bonnett might even lose the leg. Almost certainly he would be crippled for life and his career as a race driver imperiled.
“I came within a whisker of quitting,” Bonnett would concede later. “I was hurt so bad there seemed no sense in trying to go on.
“But I got so much support from fans through their letters that I decided to devote myself to trying to come back.”
Bonnett began a tough regimen of physical therapy.
Four months later his RahMoc team, owned and led by Bob Rahilly and Butch Mock, entered a Pontiac for him in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“When I went through the tunnel to get to the track at Daytona it was a victory for me,” said Bonnett.
Bonnett earned the 14th starting spot at Daytona International Speedway and came on hard to finish fourth, watching as his 'Bama buddies, Bobby and Davey Allison, staged the greatest 1-2 father and son finish in NASCAR history.
The following Sunday, Bonnett wasn’t to be denied in the Pontiac 400 at Richmond International Raceway in Virginia. He made up two laps lost to tire problems, then took the lead with 58 laps to go and got the checkered flag 1.12 seconds ahead of Ricky Rudd.
The triumph ended a non-winning streak of 16 months for Bonnett.
Almost immediately after the race Bonnett and several other Winston Cup Series drivers were in the air, bound for Australia.
Down Under, the outgoing Bonnett proved a huge hit with adoring Aussie fans.
In the race, he outdueled old pal and mentor Bobby Allison and Dave Marcis for the victory as the three essentially finished with their cars nose-to-tail.
In an infield tent used for the press conference following Victory Lane ceremonies, Bonnett had almost everyone in tears as he told of the travails he’d faced in rallying from injury.
Said one tearful Aussie fan, watching from behind a rope restraining the crowd, “Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are the Yanks we really want to see, but tonight our hearts belong to Neil Bonnett.”
The long flight home took a lot out of all “The Yanks” who went to Australia, but especially Bonnett.
“I felt good initially after getting home on Tuesday,” he said. “But Thursday into Friday I had a major sinking spell.”
It showed in time trials for the Goodwrench 500, set at N.C. Motor Speedway near Rockingham on March 6. Bonnett qualified 30th in a field of 41.
However, from the time the green flag showed it was obvious that Bonnett and his team had a potent car that could contend for the win.
On the 122nd of the race’s 492 laps on the 1.07-mile track in the Sandhills he sped into the lead for the first time. And he stayed near the front the rest of the way.
With 20 laps remaining Bonnett made a daring, close-call pass of leader Lake Speed coming off the fourth turn to take the front for good.
“I wanted to try and pass Lake with 10 laps left,” said Bonnett. “But he was strong, and I figured the longer I waited to go around him, the tougher it would be.
“Also, I saw Lake was smoking his tires in trying to put Bill Elliott a lap down. I figured he might have gotten his tires a little hot too handle, so I decided to go around him.”
Bonnett, with a steel plate and a lot of screws in his right leg riding along, beat Speed to the checkered flag by 0.62 seconds for a third victory in as many Sundays.
It was the third win for Bonnett at the track nicknamed “The Rock” and the 18th of a career that led to his induction into several motorsports halls of fame.
A grinning Bonnett left the N.C. Motor Speedway press box with this playful comment: “I've put fishing on my calendar for the next eight days, so there isn’t any sense in anyone trying to reach me.”
Sadly, Bonnett was destined never towing again.
On April 1, 1990 a multicar crash in the TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway left him with a head injury that caused amnesia for months.
Upon recovery, Bonnett became one of ESPN’s most popular racing commentators ever in the booth.
But he still yearned to drive, and in 1993 mounted a comeback bid.
Bonnett lost his life at age 43 on Feb. 11, 1994 in a crash while practicing for the Daytona 500.
Those who knew him for his smile and quick wit will remember Bonnett forever. And a revered spot is reserved for him in stock car racing history as the driver whose determination defeated the devastation of his right leg to win three in a row - just four months after he was injured.
Now, along comes Keselowski.
During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the late Cup Series champion Alan Kulwicki earned the nickname, “Special K.”
If Keselowski maintains his courageous performance, he just might become “Special K II.”