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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – When Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag Saturday at Kansas Speedway, it wasn’t just symbolic of another victory for Team Penske in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
It was a tribute to the man who helped launch not just Keselowski’s career at the national level, but the careers of many present-day household names from the NASCAR garage.
Keselowski’s first thoughts during his victory lane interview were not about his own performance, but about paying tribute to the memory of the late Mike Mittler, who passed away Friday afternoon at the age of 67 following a lengthy battle with cancer.
Mittler was a longtime team owner in what is now the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series, with 301 career starts as an owner, and gave drivers like Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Justin Allgaier and Regan Smith some of their earliest NASCAR national series starts.
All of those drivers, Keselowski included, went on to race in the premier Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after plying their trades early on with Mittler’s small team.
“I’ve got to dedicate this win to Mike Mittler,” said Keselowski. “He helped a lot of guys in their career, and I was one of them, and he passed away … and it’s just such a huge loss for the NASCAR community. He’s one of those unsung heroes that worked in the garage and gave his whole life to this sport, and there’s so many of those guys.
“Man, it just hurts to see those guys go away.”
Though several of Mittler’s drivers went on to stardom on asphalt – Edwards earned one of MB Motorsports’ three top-10 finishes at Kansas in 2002 – Mittler’s closest shaves with victory actually came on the dirt.
With dirt late model ace Bobby Pierce at the controls of the iconic No. 63 truck, Mittler watched one of his entries contend for victory in 2015 on one of the sport’s biggest stages – Eldora Speedway.
Pierce qualified fastest, won his heat race and then led 39 laps from the pole position, dicing back and forth throughout the 150-lap feature with midget and sprint car star Christopher Bell, who was then a relative unknown in NASCAR circles, much like Pierce was himself at that time.
Though Bell ultimately stood in victory lane that night, Pierce and Mittler marveled afterward at what they had accomplished by fighting tooth-and-nail against some of the Truck Series’ fiercest competition.
“I thought if it stayed green, we’d have every opportunity to work (Bell) and get by him, but it just didn’t go that way, “ Mittler told NASCAR.com at the time. “I just thought, ‘Wow, what a phenomenal opportunity that after 20 years, we’re in position to finally have an opportunity to win a race.’
“That’s why you’re in this sport, to be in contention to win. It wasn’t a fluke. We were there all day. It was no fluke at all. The kid’s the real deal. He said this is a dream come true for him. It is for me, too.”
Pierce came back to Eldora the next year with Mittler, won his heat race and started from the pole position again, leading 102 laps before crashing out inside of 25 to go.
Perhaps Mittler’s lasting legacy in the NASCAR garage area was his willingness to give chances to and to mentor largely-unproven talents, such as Pierce.
That label could have easily applied to McMurray and Edwards as well, when they drove for Mittler back in 1999 and 2002, respectively. In fact, it was a quality McMurray paid tribute to over the weekend.
“Mike Mittler gave me my first big break in NASCAR,” McMurray wrote on social media. “He loved racing as much or more than anyone I have ever been around. I will always cherish the time I spent racing for Mike and the time I spent with he and his wife Bev.
“Mike helped so many people in our sport,” added McMurray on FOX Sports 1. “His impact was wide-reaching and he’s going to be dearly missed, I can say that for sure.”
Though Mittler never scored a win in NASCAR competition, it could be argued that he was as much a winner as any of NASCAR’s top owners, by virtue of his grit, determination and passion for the sport.
It’s that passion that will be forever missed by so many in the NASCAR garage.
“(We received) very sad news with the passing of Mike Mittler,” said NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell. “We’re thinking about his family, MB Motorsports and the No. 63 (team) tonight. Mike was a special guy who was beloved in the racing community and a true representative of what NASCAR is all about.”
Mittler got what the spirit of NASCAR is made of at its roots: competition, a never-give-up attitude and a willingness to help others beyond just making one’s own operation better.
His impact and legacy will never be forgotten, but his presence at the race track will be forever missed.
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