Brad Keselowski is not your father’s NASCAR champion, unless perhaps your father is a dedicated party animal.
“Wooo! I’ve got a little buzz here. I’ve been drinking for a little bit,” said Keselowski as he toasted his own Sprint Cup season championship won here Sunday evening, swigging from a preposterously huge glass of beer bearing the logo of his car’s main sponsor.
“Make some noise!” he exhorted a willing crowd during a post-race TV interview. “You’re on SportsCenter! I don’t know if these people know they’re on SportsCenter. They’re gonna watch it later and say, ‘Hey, that was me!’ ”
Keselowski’s merry, beery grin made him look even younger than 28, which is young enough for a guy reigning atop his sport in only his third full year at its top level.
We can’t say if Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway signaled a new era for the sport, the first of many titles. But we needn’t wait to suggest the youthful, smiling new face of NASCAR is fresh, welcome, worthy of a toast.
Later Sunday Keselowski trotted tardily into his media news conference cradling an outlandishly large bottle of champagne. (It would not shock me to hear he was late because an impromptu game of beer pong had broken out.)
How will being the face of NASCAR change you, Brad?
“Well, I’m going to meet some cool people,” he said, laughing. “I always wanted to date a celebrity. I’m just throwing that that out there!”
Keselowski is the first Sprint Cup champion born in the 1980s, the first to embrace social media, symbolically as well as literally the first with an opportunity to grow the sport’s popularity by appealing to a different demographic.
He undoubtedly is the first season champ to have been fined ($25,000, just last week) for having a cellphone in his race car, for example, and Tweeting during a red-flag delay. He is a smartphone-aholic. Heck, just Sunday, less than three hours before this race, he was exchanging tweets with former football star Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson.
Johnson, a fan, asked Keselowski what was up.
“Chillin at the track bro where are you?” replied Keselowski.
Soon enough the Tweeter would reign as season champ after a 15th-place finish in Sunday’s race proved plenty good enough. He had entered with a 20-point lead over five-time winner Jimmie Johnson, the only other driver with a chance to win the 2012 title.
Keselowski all but clinched when Johnson’s car was knocked from the race with an oil-line problem on the 226th of 267 laps — but Keselowski’s finish would have been enough to clinch the championship even if Johnson had remained in the race and even won it.
Four-time champ Jeff Gordon ended up winning the race — but the day (and the enormous glass of beer) belonged to only one man.
Gordon toasted the new king and understood the significance of it.
“His ability to reach out through social media to the younger crowd, he’s someone who wants to be that,” Gordon said. “He’s entertaining. You never know what you’re going to get with Brad.”
Keselowski has rubbed some the wrong way with his aggressive driving and his cockiness, which Gordon alluded to in saying, “Every champion I’ve ever seen win their first one, they always come out with a whole new perspective on past champions. It makes you grow up.”
Keselowski’s story is not all smiles and giant beers. There were emotional elements to Sunday.
The season championship was, incredibly, the first in a 23-year NASCAR career for motor-sports (and IndyCar) legend Roger Penske, the car owner.
The crowd also marks a sweet sendoff for Dodge, which re-entered the sport in 2001 and will leave it as a champion now. Keselowski’s season title was the first for Dodge since Richard Petty in 1975, and, now, the last.
Keselowski’s personal story also has its heartstrings. Behind the outwardly cocky façade there has been hurt, and guilt.
He spun his victory doughnuts in the infield grass as the crowd roared approval Sunday and so many of those old emotions were lifting just about then, lifting like those fireworks booming and blooming overheard.
Keselowski was arriving at the very top of his sport and getting there fast — fast as in 190 mph, and fast as getting there at 28.
Fast doesn’t always mean easy, though.
Keselowski’s family lost its money and a piece of its soul investing in Brad’s career and future as 2005 seeped into ’06. When he couldn’t secure an outside sponsor, the eponymous third-generation family race team went under with the son they had banked on behind the wheel.
“The lowest point in my life,” his father, Bob, recalled Sunday, attending his first race all season. “Devastating.”
For Brad, too.
“To think I was part of bankrupting my family to try to pursue my own dream is a moment when you feel so selfish and incredibly low as a human being,” he had said this week, the guilt still there, still a part of him. “You don’t think you’ll ever recover.”
He did, and so did the family — Sunday the epitome of that. The proof.
“He pulled us out all by himself,” said his mother, Kay. “He saved us.”
Keselowski has drawn inspiration from a fiery pregame football speech made by ex-Hurricane Ray Lewis of the Ravens on EA Sports’ Madden ’13 video.
“I’ve always been told I’m too small, not big enough, not fast, don’t have what it takes,” shouts Lewis in his evangelical style.
Keselowski says he has watched that a hundred times, and there were echoes of Lewis when the new champ described what this career pinnacle meant to him.
“I’m 6 foot, about 155 pounds, I ain’t a big guy. I’m not the strongest guy. I haven’t always been the fastest guy or the smartest guy or smoothest guy,” he said Sunday. “I’ve heard that all my life. It’s given me the fire to find the way to win.”
Then, an unlikely historical reference:
“Like Winston Churchill,” he warned, “we never, ever, ever give up.”
Penske reeled Keselowski back in by booming, “Did you bring your Tweeter — that’s I wanna know!”
With that, we fittingly end with a Twitter-styled summary of 140 characters:
A massive gust of fresh air is sweeping through NASCAR and it feels good. It feels cool. It feels new. Different. Brad Keselowski. #champion