Brad Keselowski sat in a chair in a small conference room at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his blue and gold firesuit soaked through by his sponsor's product, a piece of star-shaped confetti from the championship celebration stuck to one shoe. Not even his cell phone -- the generator of all those tweets, including the infamous one from inside his car at Phoenix that earned him a $25,000 fine -- was spared. The back of the device was splotched from beer or champagne or goodness knows what else sprayed in the aftermath of his first Sprint Cup title.
No matter -- a champion, after all, finds a way to persevere. "It got a little wet. I dried it out," Keselowski said, as he thumbed through well-wishes from a social media following that increased by about 6,000 in the wake of Sunday night. If the jubilant beer-hall romp which followed his first premier-series crown wasn't enough, it was another reminder that this is a very different champion of NASCAR's top division.
You could see it in the way people reacted to him following the season finale, as Keselowski bounded from one stage to another, gulping from a pilsner glass almost as big as his new Sprint Cup trophy, reveling not just in his championship but in the moment itself. Whatever script there might have been, it was quickly in tatters. "Expect the unexpected. That's my MO, right?" he said later. It was a ride wilder than the race itself, and the fans who stuck around afterward relished every crazy twist and turn, chanting the new champion's name as if demanding an encore at a rock concert.
"It's great, man," Keselowski said when asked about being the focus of it all. "People love beer."
Well, sure. But certainly they also seemed to love Keselowski, an amalgamation unlike any champion NASCAR has ever known, a guy with old-school sensibilities and a new-school grasp of modern technology. He's only 28, but as the latest in a lineage of racers, it feels like he's been around forever -- as a kid in 2001 he worked as scorer for his family's team at Daytona, that capacity being the only way he could get into the garage. He didn't go to college, but he once studied automotive engineering textbooks, and now offers feedback over the radio startling in its clarity. He can make you laugh, think, and sometimes cringe within the space of a few minutes. He's a sometimes rough-around the edges guy armed with an iPhone.
Trying to define Brad Keselowski can be more difficult than chasing him down on the track, where he won the title with a 6.3 average finish in Chase races that equaled Tony Stewart's mark last year. Much like his predecessor, he seems an old soul, someone who would have been perfectly at home competing two decades ago. But he also sets the bar among drivers as far as engagement with fans over social media, he's almost always comfortable and candid with reporters, and he relishes going off-script. Two weeks ago at Phoenix, every driver who entered the media center sat in a director's chair. Except Keselowski, who swapped it for a reporter's seat so he could sit behind a low table.
Old yet new, proper yet unpredictable, thoughtful yet unpolished -- Keselowski runs the gamut, which as champion at least gives him the opportunity to be a transitive figure for the sport. Given the relative suddenness of his rise -- he won the title in just his 125th Sprint Cup start -- there are all kinds of natural comparisons to Jeff Gordon, who broke through at a similar time in his career and went on to change the fabric of NASCAR. Keselowski may not go on to win four championships, but he has the pulse of the circuit's fan base literally at his fingertips, something Gordon could never have imagined in 1995.
He's also unafraid to admit he might be a little tipsy on camera, a freedom that perhaps to a certain degree stems from the latitude sponsor Miller Lite affords him. But also comes from who he is. "Maybe I could be a little more professional and a little less rough around the edges on some things, but that just comes with time and age. I'll find that," he said. "I'm not worried. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice the core of what makes you, the passion that's driven me to where I'm at. You don't have to sacrifice those things."
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Clearly, Sunday night, he wasn't sacrificing a thing. Seeing Keselowski hoisting that oversized pilsner glass, it was impossible to not pick up on an everyman quality that made him instantly relatable to so many in the cheering crowd. Other drivers have that too, of course, but they're not as young, or they're not as savvy at communicating it, or they're less willing to show off their more unvarnished selves. Not the new champion, who was such a babe in the woods when he landed his first big Nationwide Series ride that boss Dale Earnhardt Jr. took his new driver under his wing.
"It was a different world, a different time for me," Keselowski said. "I came from basically not having any clothes to being thrown into a ride where there were some expectations. I didn't have a great understanding of what it meant to be a part of NASCAR at that time. I owe Dale a lot of credit. He helped me figure that out."
He also had to learn how to coexist with team members that weren't part of the family, something exacerbated by a difficult first full season in Sprint Cup that took a toll on his confidence. In retrospect, Keselowski realizes he didn't have to put everything on his shoulders. "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. I do now," he said.
"But 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. I never had anybody teach me that. Nobody ever taught me about teamwork. That's something I had to learn on my own. My family and my parents, my mom and dad, they taught me about work ethic, they taught me what it meant to be a part of a family that had each other's backs, but it's a lot different when you're not family. ... It's completely different trying to motivate somebody that you're not related to whose livelihood doesn't necessarily depend on your success."
They were all experiences that shaped the final product, which was on vivid display Sunday night. No one can be all things to all people, but darn if this multi-faceted new Sprint Cup champion doesn't come close. From diehard racers to younger tech-savvy fans to those who just enjoy popping a cold one, Keselowski offers a little of everything. And his celebration after winning the championship? It could be just the beginning. Awards week in Las Vegas begins Monday, which gives Keselowski an idea of how to make an impact even more explosive.
"You know what would be awesome? Do they have any buildings that need to be torn down, that we could literally blow up?" he said, eyes glinting. "... No one's ever thought of that one, have they? Like the Stardust, when that got blown up? Imagine if that was Champions Week, the championship driver. He could say he literally blew up Vegas."
It seems that may be coming, whether there are any casinos slated for demolition or not.
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