Blaney, Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. intrinsically tied in NASCAR success

Two of NASCARs biggest names have not only helped pass the torch, but had a huge part in young drivers fledgling careers

Rusty Jarrett—Getty Images via NASCAR Media
Dale Earnhardt Jr. congratulates Brad Keselowski in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 26

Ten years ago, Brad Keselowski was trying everything imaginable to make his name known in the Xfinity Series. Driving Keith Coleman Racing, Keselowski saw the team fold midway through the 2007 season, leaving him with no ride and nowhere to go.That was when Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped in. The biggest and most popular name in the sport suddenly wanted a driver whose best finish in the Xfinity Series was 24th earlier that season.Keselowski was suddenly thrust into the No. 88 car for JR Motorsports, and he performed at a high level. After finishing with four top 10s in 14 races to close out 2007, Keselowski tallied six victories over the next two seasons and was third in the points standings as the only full-time driver for the young team.In 2010, Kes made the switch to Team Penske as a full-time Xfinity and Cup Series driver. But his career was forever changed by the faith Earnhardt showed in him when his career was on life support.”Dale gave me an incredible opportunity, and I don’t know if I would have made it without him,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know. But I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. And I’m thankful for the support he gave me in the early days of my career, really the foundational days of my career, because he didn’t have to do that.”It wasn’t something he had to do. It was something he wanted to do.”Before Keselowski made the switch, though, his first win came with Phoenix Racing ahead of — you guessed it — Junior in 2009 at Talladega. Earnhardt immediately headed to Victory Lane to congratulate his JR Motorsports driver after a controversial last-lap wreck that led to them crossing the start-finish line together.Just a few years later, Keselowski won his first championship in 2012 and had a bustling Trucks Series team of his own. The young driver who drove for Keselowski at the end of that season was none other than Ryan Blaney, a 19-year-old driver who had racing in his blood.Blaney almost immediately thrived with Brad Keselowski Racing, winning in Iowa in his third race and earning five top 10s in nine races. The only thing faster than Blaney on the track was his rise off it, moving up to the Monster Energy Cup Series by 2015 at 21 years old.”Yeah, I think he’s done a great job,” Keselowski said of Blaney. “He’s so, so fast. He’s got a tremendous amount of speed, which that’s kind of the foundational or one of the foundational items for any race car driver is: Can he go fast?”And the rest seems to be more procedural, which comes with time, experience and so forth. So he’s got a great foundation and a great team to build off of. And he’s doing all the right things. So you never know with younger drivers how things are going to turn out.”Last Sunday, Blaney earned the first career Cup win at Pocono after putting together a stellar season to this point. Leading up to Michigan, he has posted 242 laps led with five top 10s — three of which were top fives — and sits at 12th overall in the points standings with his spot in the playoffs all but sealed.He may be one of the rising stars for Team Penske, Ford Performance and NASCAR as a whole, but he still credits much of his success to Keselowski taking him under his wing. After Keselowski met Blaney in Victory Lane following his first win with a mic in hand for a playful interview, Blaney made it very clear how much Kes impacted his career.”It was awesome to see him basically just take the microphone from Jaime Little,” Blaney said. “That was cool to see his support. I wouldn’t be here without Brad, to be honest with you. … I would be nothing if it wasn’t for him taking a chance on me.”He’s been a huge person I’ve looked up to. For him to do that really, really makes me feel good. It’s really cool to see his support still. He’s a great person.”On the cusp of the end of Earnhardt’s career and the start of Blaney’s, the two have also been linked together throughout the season.Earlier in the year, Blaney blamed Junior for losing his tires at Phoenix with some choice words and gave him a case of beer at Martinsville to earn his forgiveness. Following Blaney’s victory at Pocono, Earnhardt greeted him with four coolers full of beer and partied throughout the night with a slew of fellow Cup drivers.After Keselowski was given an opportunity by Earnhardt, he returned the favor to Blaney. Seeing that come full circle at Pocono was an emotional experience for Keselowski, especially since it was Earnhardt who was one of the first to greet him in Victory Lane at Talladega so many years earlier.”I can never really repay [Earnhardt] for that,” Keselowski said. “And so what I can do is pay it forward to others and give that same opportunity. So seeing someone like Ryan win is almost like the best thank you I can give to Dale Jr. or to Roger or to my dad and family that gave me opportunities.”In a lot of ways it feels good for that reason.”