Say this much about Brad Keselowski -- the guy refuses to back down. After Jimmie Johnson limped into the Phoenix garage area Sunday with the right side of his No. 48 car all scraped up and bent in, the Penske Racing driver at last had a real reason to throttle back on the aggressive style he's employed throughout this Chase. Soon enough, though, there was the new championship leader wedged in three-wide on a restart, gunning for the front. The odds of Keselowski taking it easy seemed lower than a debris caution being issued for a piece of Saguaro cactus on the frontstretch.
So what happened in the media center after the race shouldn't have come as a surprise. If there was anyone who was going to vent on the fracas that unfolded during and after the final lap in regulation at Phoenix, it was going to be Keselowski, who has never been shy about voicing opinions, popular or otherwise. And yet, this wasn't a rant -- some unfortunate profanity aside, this was a mandate, a complete reproach of vindictive tit-for-tat racing uttered with authority and conviction. He hasn't won the title yet, but for the first time, Brad Keselowski spoke like a champion.
*Sound Off: Keselowski passionately comments post Phoenix
Certainly, all this was influenced to a large degree by his own perspective. It now seems obvious that the baseless criticisms over how he raced Johnson in the final laps at Texas bothered Keselowski more than he let on. He also had a front-row seat to the Clint Bowyer-Jeff Gordon tussle, scooting by on the low side as the day's primary combatants slammed into one another. If he hadn't had to answer questions about having a "death wish" -- really? That's the kind of reputation you get for door-banging racing these days? -- and hadn't had to take evasive action to get around a personal vendetta, perhaps he might not have cut loose quite so vociferously.
But everything unfolded the way it did, and the result was a powerful reprimand by Keselowski, who despite his youth and own relatively turbulent history, is rapidly developing the reputation and the on-track credibility necessary to back something like that up. Yes, it was a little rough around the edges, kind of like the driver himself. But it was also raw and powerful, his words hitting home with all the force of a race car striking a concrete wall. In some minds, a champion should be a driver who attempts to set the agenda in the garage area. Sunday, Keselowski showed he's willing to do just that.
"These guys just tried to kill each other," he said. "You race hard, and I get called an (expletive) for racing hard and called with a death wish, and I see (expletive) like that, and it just (expletive) me off. ... It's just (expletive) ridiculous, and they should be ashamed. It's embarrassing."
Now, while we shouldn't live under the illusion that all drivers are choir boys who never utter an untoward syllable, there's clearly an issue with the language here. No question, the profanity helped Keselowski emphasize his point, giving his words a shock value they may not have had otherwise. The problem is, some people simply aren't going to be able to get past the four-letter words, and will miss the greater message within. Although Keselowski has the benefit of a beer sponsor that's always seemed very willing to let the driver be himself, NASCAR had to wince at the sound of its prospective champion using such salty language. He's fortunate that Tuesday, his only fine was for having a cell phone in the car.
So in retrospect, perhaps he could have toned it down, alienated fewer people, and been equally as emphatic, all lessons that will come with age. At the heart of the matter, though, is an unflinching message from a driver who would be champion of NASCAR's premier series, and a real glimpse at how Keselowski might approach becoming the face of his sport. We didn't often hear such things from five-time champion Johnson, who led with a quiet dignity, letting his actions serve as an example. Outgoing titlist Tony Stewart has always claimed that the championship brings with it no additional responsibilities, and yet when the spirit moves him -- as it did last year on the subject of give-and-take -- he can use his sizable soapbox to relentlessly hammer home his point.
Given his innate candor, Keselowski would seem capable of taking that to another level. Granted, he has moments where he seems out of his depth, as he did in the middle of the AJ Allmendinger saga when he offered his opinion on athletic supplements, saying drivers shouldn't even take Flintstones vitamins. But those are rare. For the most part, this is a smart, savvy guy who is aware of the influence he can wield through the media. Sunday, he raised legitimate issues in what otherwise might have been brushed off by many as a "boys, have at it" moment. The question is, can he have the same impact in the garage area? Stewart and Johnson certainly do, but they also have eight Sprint Cup trophies between them.
Before anything, Keselowski has to claim his first, a quest that reaches its final stages this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With a 20-point lead, Keselowski has only to place 15th in Sunday's race -- not a bad position, given that he's finished that low just once since June, the exception coming when he was caught in a wreck in at Bristol. Then again, this is Johnson we're dealing with, and he's already pulled one title out of the fire at Homestead in his career. Of course, the deficit he overcame to beat Denny Hamlin in 2010 was considerably smaller than what he's facing now, a detail that does not leave him deterred.
"My brain won't stop," Johnson wrote Monday on Twitter. "This championship is far from over."
Barring a miracle in Miami, though, Keselowski will win his first title to realize all the potential he's shown since his meteoric rise began last year. In all probability, the role will fit him quite nicely. After all, he's already talking like a champion, even though he has yet to wear the crown.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.