COMMENTARY | To someone tuning in after watching a football game on Sunday evening, ESPN may have looked like a college frat party celebration of the end of the school year: beer in big glasses was flowing, ticker tape was stuck to everything, and a young man who hardly looked older than a college freshman was getting slightly inebriated live on national television.
That wasn't college - that was NASCAR, and NASCAR has a new champion that likes to do things his way.
Brad Keselowski, 28, from Rochester Hills, Michigan, won a hard-fought Chase for the Sprint Cup in an unlikely way: the man known as "Five-Time," Jimmie Johnson - Keselowski's closest competition - not only had problems in the pits near the end of the race, he suffered mechanical problems that put him out of contention. In fact, it dropped him back to third in points, as Clint Bowyer jumped over him.
Keselowski isn't your conventional, traditional NASCAR driver, and that may be a good thing for a sport that has seen its attendance and viewership dropping in recent years. He's brash, talkative, a social media darling and a sponsor's dream - particularly Miller Lite on Sunday night, as he had a can in hand the moment he got out of the car. He knows just what to say in victory lane and other interviews, and very rarely gets rattled. He's passionate about his sport, and his expletive-filled tirade in the media center following the mayhem in the second-to-last race at Phoenix showed how passionate he can be: "Well, it's the double-standard that I spent a whole week being bashed by a half a dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I'm out of control and have a death wish, and then I see (expletive) like that. That's (expletive). That's all you can call that. These guys just tried to kill each other. 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."
His post-race comments on ESPN following his championship-clinching 15th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, November 18 were definitely more heartfelt: "Well, saw this really cool video that Ray Lewis did and, you know, he said in it that you know throughout my whole life I've been told my whole life I'm not big enough, not fast enough, not strong enough, I don't have what it takes and I've used that as a chip on my shoulder to carry me through my whole career, and, you know, it took till this year for me to realize that was right. I'm not big enough, not fast enough, not strong enough. No team or no person is. Only a team can do that and these guys up here, they make me big enough. They make me fast enough. They make me strong enough to do anything we want to do and it's because of these guys. I can't be here without them. I really can't."
Keselowski is always quick to mention his team, especially crew chief Paul Wolfe, who has been with Keselowski since his Nationwide Series title in 2010. Wolfe often looks like the straight man to happy-go-lucky Keselowski, but the two may have the best driver-crew chief relationship since Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli in their Joe Gibbs Racing days - more like brothers, knowing just what the other is saying and having the ability to learn from each other.
Someone else Keselowski always mentions is team owner Roger Penske, a man who, in the words of his former driver Ryan Newman, "deserves this probably as much as anybody else, if not more because of what he's done for motor racing in general. His dedication to all forms of racecars is probably more than anybody else in the history of auto racing."
That Penske hadn't won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title before 2012 is one of motorsports' great mysteries. Among the drivers who have raced for Penske in NASCAR: Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and Newman. Yet it took Keselowski to win "The Captain" a title, a driver who brings a new look and new intensity to NASCAR - and hopefully for NASCAR, he'll be bringing it for a long time.
Sources: "Transcript: AdvoCare 500," NASCAR Media, November 11, 2012
"Transcript: Ford EcoBoost 400," NASCAR Media, November 18, 2012
Paula is a long-time NASCAR fan who also covers the sport at Examiner.com and Skirts & Scuffs.