For the more than four decades Frank Sinatra was a fixture in Las Vegas, he and his Rat Pack instilled this city with the swinging sophistication that continues to define it today. After the crooner suffered his fatal heart attack, the bright lights of the Strip were dimmed briefly in tribute. Sinatra's first live performance here was in 1951 at the Desert Inn, which was demolished to make room for the Wynn, which Friday night hosted NASCAR's awards ceremony.
It's a long way from Ol' Blue Eyes to the driver of the Blue Deuce. But during this Champions Week, it became more evident that Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski has at least one thing in common with the late Las Vegas icon: both did it their way.
No mistaking that, not in the days since the 28-year-old Penske Racing driver secured his first championship in NASCAR's premier series. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe won the title by not compromising, by sticking to an aggressive style that could make every race and every pit stop an adventure, and by prompting more than a few moments where it all seemed on the brink of coming apart. But through it all, they stayed on the attack, and the result was an untouchable Chase run that kicked off a celebration that rolled straight from South Florida to the Nevada desert.
No one will soon forget Homestead and a tipsy new champion celebrating his triumph with a beer glass as big as his sterling silver trophy. The tone of that night carried into Champions Week, during which it was tough to find any of the Chase participants without a cold one in hand. References to Keselowski's oversized pilsner glass were as commonplace as the sight of drivers at a craps table. In the middle of it all was always the new champion, sometimes grinning from behind sunglasses, many times with a Miller Lite handy, reveling in every moment. The only thing that slowed him down was a fading voice that was evident in his speech Friday night.
"It's an amazing ride, I'm sure," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "I know he's enjoying the heck out of himself, and I'm proud of him for how he's handled himself. We've thrown everything at him, let me tell you. And some have thrown more than that at him, and he's stepped up like a pro. He's going to make a great champion. It's great to see a young guy like him enjoying the moment the way he is. And also, I think he's got a great appreciation for the sport to be able to respect where he is as well."
Even so, an indoctrination process of sorts was necessary. All week, there were stories about other drivers charging things to the five-room villa that was Keselowski's home during Champions Week. Thursday before a raucous After the Lap that had drivers trading barbs with one another, three-time champ Tony Stewart conscripted the help of five-time titlist Jimmie Johnson to ply the new series winner with one of their preferred beverages, tequila. They told Keselowski it was a championship tradition, ensuring the Penske driver took to the stage at Planet Hollywood feeling no pain.
"I'm trying to stay clean and smart going into this triathlon I have Sunday, so I did the old fake shot -- pour some on the floor, put some on the table," Johnson said. "Brad was a little concerned about the tequila. I don't think he has a lot of experience in that area. Tony was determined to send him on stage feeling right. And then [Greg] Biffle jumped in, and Gordon and [Kasey] Kahne, everybody started pushing on him pretty hard. But to get him to take the first one, Tony was like, 'I need your help. We've got to go into this and say it's a moment that champs have together.' And we got it started, and now all the sudden he's sick and doesn't feel good."
But not from a hangover, Keselowski insisted on Twitter. Of course, not all moments between champions involved copious amounts of alcohol. On the bus heading to Fremont Street for Wednesday's Fanfest downtown, the two men who had combined to claim the previous seven crowns reminded Keselowski to enjoy the experience this week, despite the hectic pace and nonstop schedule involved.
"It is a long week for a champion. You wouldn't trade it for the world, obviously, but by Thursday night, you're starting to get worn out," Stewart said. "And you can see it in his eyes, he's getting tired. But I think the one things Jimmie and I sat down and told him when we went to Fremont Street on the bus the other day was enjoy every minute of it. It seems like you look at the schedule in the morning and you're like, 'Oh my god, you're wearing me out.' I told him just every moment you have there, enjoy it and have fun with it. Because there are still 40-plus drivers that still want to be where you're at this week."
Johnson concurred. "It just goes by so fast," he said. "... I know from experience that you get here, and you've packed or somebody's packed for you, and you're looking at bags that say Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning, Wednesday lunch, Wednesday dinner. And you're just trying to get through it all. You're being pulled in so many different directions. You're damn happy with what you accomplished, but there's just a lot going on. When you get home and sit back and think a little, you're like, 'Wow, that went by fast.' We both were sharing with him -- just try to slow it down a little bit if you can. Enjoy the moment. And hopefully he is."
That much seemed evident. At the Fremont Street event, where Chase drivers took part in a game-show takeoff that involved fifth-graders, Keselowski was chided by one of the elementary-school students for having a beer in hand. "That's inappropriate!" the kid cried. There was no such thing during Brad's Champions Week, where the After the Lap session featured a stocked beer cooler. Stewart at one point was holding three beverages, and Clint Bowyer left the stage to fix a mixed drink. "We're in Las Vegas, and we're doing some drinking," Keselowski announced to the crowd. "Here's the equation: The more drinking we do, the more fun we have."
Keselowski's Homestead celebration was never far from mind -- Howie Mandel, host of Friday night's awards ceremony, quipped that the head table resembled a telethon. "They're trying to raise money for more beer for Brad," the comedian said. When liquid cold medication was playfully fetched to ease Keselowski's sore throat, of course it came out in a giant glass like the one the driver had raised two weeks earlier. Asked Thursday what his acceptance speech might be like, the new champion let on only that everyone should expect the unexpected.
"Oh, it definitely will not be written," Keselowski said. "I don't write speeches. I go off the cuff. I might do [bullet] points; that's to be determined. But what I will not do is a written speech."
He didn't do a written speech. What he did was deliver a tremendous improvisational message that struck the perfect balance between humor and humility (Watch). He showed gratitude, respect and, in the end, leadership, urging those in the sport to work together toward common goals. It was Keselowski at his absolute best, rising above it all, just as he did on the race track, yet always remaining true to himself. Regrets? He probably has a few. But he faced it all. He stood tall. And he did it his way.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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