Keselowski's victory may help bring a younger vibe to NASCAR
Brad Keselowski's victory may help NASCAR connect with the younger fans
Keselowski said he wouldn't change his difficult past because it helped shape him
He's grown into a leader who helped Penske Racing to its first ever Sprint Cup title
Brad Keselowski stood next to NASCAR chairman Brian France on stage and chugged a beer, knocking it back with the zeal of a 21-year-old in a bar for the first time. He aroused the crowd between quaffs, raising his oversized glass and encouraging them to "make some noise!" during a live national TV interview.
This is NASCAR's new champion.
"Expect the unexpected," Brad Keselowski later said.
The 28-year-old brings a new vibrancy to a sport viewed by some in his generation as an old man's diversion. His first Sprint Cup championship augments his role as the sport's social media pied piper, a position he inherited when he tweeted during the red flag in the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.
Keselowski represents the sport's future with a nod to its past.
He is not as polished as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who challenged Keselowski for this year's title; or Jeff Gordon, who won Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But Keselowski evokes that old-time racer with his brashness. He unleashed an expletive-laced commentary about Gordon intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix earlier this month. He argued last month on Twitter against doctors forcing a driver to sit out due to a concussion because "the science behind concussions is very vague." He criticized NASCAR's move to electronic fuel injection last year and was secretly fined by series officials.
"You never know what you're going to get with Brad," Gordon said. "He's entertaining."
Gordon knows how important Keselowski's championship is in raising the young driver's and the sport's profile. Keselowski is just the third person under the age of 30 to win a Cup crown since 1985, joining Gordon and Kurt Busch. Keselowski can only help NASCAR bridge a gap with younger fans in a series where half of this year's 12 Chase drivers were 37 and over, including four age 40 or older.
While France declined to say last weekend whether Keselowski or Johnson would be a better champion for NASCAR -- "Do you really expect me to answer?" he said -- France discussed the sport's social media push.
"The idea that young fans are digitally engaged and getting excited about things much differently than they used to, not just plopping by the TV watching sports and other entertainment, that's all changing at a rapid clip," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to stay apace with that and take advantage of it. It's a great opportunity for us."
And for Keselowski, whose humble beginning in the sport resonates with fans, young and old, facing their own struggles.
Keselowski's edge comes from fighting to succeed early in his racing career with his family's team before it went bankrupt and with another team before it also folded, leaving him without a ride He persevered, took advantage of a break and carried it to the sport's pinnacle.
Even so, he's caught himself wistfully admiring the chances many of the sport's top young drivers had before they turned 18.
"I wish I had those opportunities when I was their age, then I stop and go, 'Hell no,' because all the failures I had from age 16 to 24 shaped who I am," Keselowski said a couple of weeks ago.
That experience gives him an old-school type of attitude that got him in trouble with run-ins on the track with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, and off it with NASCAR.
"For sure, I think that Brad is one of the best racers out there at this point," Hamlin said at Phoenix. "Not only from the speed that he has, but the ethics in which he races. He's a great guy to race with. Really to me, there's no resemblance from the Brad before to the Brad now."
Keselowski's change off the track has been as dramatic.
"I suffered from some serious confidence issues when I first came into Cup that were a result of, a lot of things, mostly just not having the speed to be successful and trying to do too much," he said. "I was trying too hard to be the 'I' in team, and there is none, and that's pretty obvious looking back now. But I didn't know that.
"It's not until you have a group around you that shows you that you don't have to do all the work, that you can share it, and that as long as you respect them, care about them and work with them, you can be successful. And that's something I had to learn on my own."
He's grown to become a leader at Penske Racing, filling a void after Busch's departure last season. Keselowski transitioned smoothly, urging car owner Roger Penske, whose teams dominated IndyCar but not NASCAR, to do more.
"I'd have to say that Brad has not only pushed me as an individual, he's pushed the team in a positive direction, and he's delivering," Penske said. "It's one thing when someone is pushing you and they don't deliver, but he seems to be able to give us that extra push but deliver on the race weekends."
Keselowski's attention to detail has gone beyond what the team needs for its cars. Penske noted that Keselowski told him that they needed to upgrade their fitness center, providing better equipment for their team to train.
Keselowski joked Sunday that he had another list of improvements for Penske and that it would his Christmas list to his boss.
That could wait. Sunday night was a time to enjoy what they accomplished.
Their celebrations contrasted sharply. As Keselowski whooped it up, Penske was more buttoned down. His wildest antic was exchanging team hats with car owner and friend Rick Hendrick.
"Maybe I am conservative, but I like to have a little fun, too," Penske said. "And I think when you've won the NASCAR championship, the driver, you can kind of give him a little wider path, and he's certainly taken it. I think it's all good."
Just as the championship could be good for Keselowski, it will also help NASCAR reach new audiences.
"I'm going to meet some cool people," Keselowski said. "I've always wanted to date a celebrity. That would be really cool, don't you think? [But] not a Kardashian."
Some things are past their prime. Keselowski's is just beginning.