November 20, 2012

COMMENTARY — ON AUTO RACING: Keselowski not your daddy's champion

BY JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brad Keselowski chugged his cold Miller Lite, the beer splashing down the side of his face as NASCAR chairman Brian France watched with amusement as his newest ambassador celebrated the crowning moment of his career.

Dehydrated after 400 miles of racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it didn't take long for his sponsor's product to take effect. Keselowski beamed a mischievous grin, wiped away his foam mustache and tried to figure out how to accept the Sprint Cup trophy from France without dropping his oversized beer glass.

He's fresh, he's fearless and he's certainly not your daddy's NASCAR champion.

What Keselowski might be is just the guy NASCAR needs to appeal to the younger crowd as it closes a season that will likely be remembered for a jet fuel explosion, Twitter, a garage-area fight. If the season-ending image that stays with the public is of a slightly drunk Keselowski being, well, Keselowski, that's OK.

After all, the racing itself was largely forgettable this season, a huge problem for NASCAR, and France reiterated last weekend that work is ongoing on the 2013 cars "to improve" the quality of racing.

So Keselowski's championship reign is critical for NASCAR. He's the face of the sport, the spokesman, the guy who will bang the drum for all things NASCAR over the next few months.

Keselowski proved he was different from the veteran drivers when he tweeted from inside his car during the season-opening Daytona 500, and his addiction to social media and his cellphone was a season-long theme. He's 28, tech savvy and unafraid to test his limits.

"I think because of that, he'll do great," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who helped broaden NASCAR's mainstream appeal when he emerged in the early '90s. "His ability to reach out through social media and the younger crowd, he's somebody that takes it, wants to take it, and because of that, he'll put a lot of effort into it. He's entertaining. You never know what you're going to get with Brad."

That's part of Keselowski's charm, and while he is indeed authentic, he very much enjoys being anti-establishment.

A year ago, Keselowski participated in the season-ending celebration in Las Vegas for the first time in his career. Although the awards banquet is the only actual black-tie affair, the week is packed with appearances, events, cocktail parties, receptions and one sponsor-heavy luncheon.

When he boarded the bus that took all 12 drivers to the luncheon, Keselowski was wearing an old pair of jeans and an untucked shirt. The other 11 drivers were all in suits. Someone on the bus suggested they stop on the way so Keselowski could pick up something else to wear.

Keselowski, who had announced a multiyear contract extension with Penske Racing just hours earlier, refused.

"I'm a race car driver!" he declared. "Why do I need to dress like that?"

Perhaps he had a point. But it wasn't a fight he was going to win driving for Roger Penske, and Keselowski was upgrading his wardrobe a few weeks later.

Keselowski has changed on the track, as well.

He was rough and raw in the Nationwide Series, and he didn't care who he wrecked when he was trying to get noticed. He wanted a job, wanted to survive in NASCAR and thought it was every man for himself. When he feuded with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, and they tried to explain etiquette, he didn't want to listen.

It was maddening to more experienced drivers, who quickly ran out of patience with Keselowski. Because he was in a developmental deal with Hendrick Motorsports, he got to drive a handful of races for them and sit in on some competition meetings with the big boys.

(Continued on page 2)

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