Brad Keselowski's crown didn't always rest easy
November 13, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
From the beginning, it was quite obvious that Brad Keselowski was going to be a different type of champion. The Penske Racing driver slid out of his No. 2 car after securing his first Sprint Cup Series title, and proceeded to drench Homestead-Miami Speedway in the kind of liquid celebration rarely seen in the public eye. Later, he joked about getting the chance to meet cool people and date celebrities. Now the face of his sport, a driver who admitted to once suffering from confidence issues had emerged completely from whatever bits of shell remained.
The mantle he seized with such gusto one year ago this weekend clearly emboldened someone who didn't need much prodding to begin with. That much was evident during his speech in Champions Week, which closed with a stirring call for unity that left no doubt as to his intended role in the process.
"I hope that as a sport we can continue to find common ground," he said that night in Las Vegas. " … As a champion, I want to be your leader, and I want to make it happen."
He had uttered similar words a few days earlier at a sports business forum, emphasizing his goal of becoming more than just a driver, and no doubt he entered this season eager to act as a catalyst for productive change.
Keselowski had won the title with an aggressive and uncompromising style, one he refused to veer from even when circumstances might have suggested otherwise. He opened his reign in the same way, using opinions to attack issues as he would the track in his race car, and on occasion hitting a figurative wall.
There were times he was chastised, publicly by other competitors or privately by series officials. There were moments when he could have chosen his words a little more carefully, or been a bit more judicious in picking his battles. There were a few rare times he was flat-out wrong, like his odd opposition to mandatory baseline concussion testing, which sounds too much like the complaints about head-and-neck restraints before they were required in the early 2000s. On a few of those, he should probably get a pass for being only 29 years old.
No question, Keselowski has seen his influence at Penske Racing grow in direct proportion to his on-track success. He has Roger Penske's ear to the point where he was essentially allowed to handpick Joey Logano as his teammate beginning this season. That worked out well for all involved, given Logano's improved performance -- in the end, he would become the only Penske driver this year to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. But exerting as much sway over an entire sport proved a much greater challenge, and Keselowski's wider audience wasn't always as receptive to his ideas.
Did he make a difference? "I don’t think it's fair to answer that question in the scope of one year," he said last week. "I think that’s a question that answers itself over the course of a decade, maybe more. … Quite frankly, we have to get better if we're going to continue to exist at the level we're at. But this is a big ship. Whether things are going right or wrong, it takes a long time to turn it. And there's no doubt there's some things we can do better, and we need to."
Indeed, some of the issues Keselowski has tried to tackle -- like resolving what he sees as conflicts of interest within the sport, fostering more cooperation, or increasing wireless internet penetration at race tracks -- can hardly be resolved in a single calendar year. It can't help that while winning a championship certainly changes the perception of a driver in the public eye, it doesn't necessarily have the same effect in the garage area. Even someone quite accustomed to winning titles can testify to as much.
"Being the champion is an amazing thing, and it does change a lot. But it doesn’t change the way you are viewed in the competition department of NASCAR. You are still a driver. You are still one of 43. Sure you have the big trophy, but it doesn’t change a lot there," said Jimmie Johnson, who can clinch his sixth championship in Sunday's season finale with a finish of 23rd or better.
"What it does change is in (the media) and what happens out there with the fans and people listening more. So you have an opportunity to speak your mind. You have an opportunity to say more and to be heard and your voice carries a lot further that can be good and bad. All champions, especially first-time champions, go through trying to understand how to use that new power. It doesn’t change a lot in the garage. It doesn’t change a lot in the competition department of NASCAR, but the other areas it does."
So yes, that crown can sit uneasily at times, no matter who is wearing it. In Keselowski's case, while you might quibble with his methods on occasion, there's no doubting his intentions. It's hard to come down too hard on somebody whose hopes of bettering the sport spring from the right place, even if he does overextend his reach from time to time. The question now is if Keselowski will be continue to be extended the same platforms he's enjoyed this season to champion his ideas -- while someone else is carrying the title of series champion.
"That’s hard to say," he said. "Success breeds respect, so you just have to be successful in some respect. But at the end of the day, no one can take that championship away from you."
No question, and that will become obvious when Champions Week again returns to Las Vegas, and Keselowski sees his name and face fluttering among the banners celebrating past champions of NASCAR's premier division. In fairness, this would have been a trying season for any driver, a past champion included, given the mechanical failures and the penalties and the summertime slump that combined to prevent Keselowski from having a chance to defend his title in the Chase.
"We need to get our consistency back to be a team that can continue to contend for championships," he said, "and I think we're pretty close."
And that, more than anything, is what will help ensure that Keselowski's voice is among the loudest and most influential in the garage area. His effort to transform NASCAR doesn't end with the finale to his championship season -- in reality it's just beginning, and like anything else in this sport, it must be bolstered by performance on the race track. Nothing will help make outgoing champion Brad Keselowski the leader he wants to be more than a serious run at celebrating in Homestead once again.