Keselowski not muzzled, just more selective
February 15, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
The method by which he gets those opinions across may have changed, but he remains steadfast in his beliefs.
"I don't have a muzzle on my face right now, but maybe I should have," the 30-year-old said Thursday during NASCAR's annual Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. "I'm in an increasingly difficult position as a champion of this sport to try to convey the very strong situation and the health of the sport, which, although it could always be better is not terrible.
"And also my own personal agenda to be a champion that moves this sport forward."
His views on how that is best accomplished haven't always been endorsed by those in charge. The 2013 season had barely begun when he found himself front and center with senior management for publicly questioning NASCAR's business model. Months later, his assessment of NASCAR-mandated baseline concussion testing drew a critical eye.
Sometimes his opinions drew much more -- Keselowski acknowledges that he’s paid his share of fines in recent years.
While it might have seemed as if such incidents led to a more reticent Keselowski, the team Penske driver said that's not the case. His voice is still heard, his opinion continues to carry weight. It's the process, he said, that has been altered.
"I think quite a few back channels have opened up within NASCAR over the last six to eight months that have given me the ability to not have to go to the media to get something done," he said. "That fits my personal and professional agenda, and out of respect for that I think it maybe creates a situation where what might look like a muzzle … is perhaps more a moment of opportunity I just don't want to piss away."
Keselowski doesn't claim to be perfect, or always be right. But he won't shy away from offering an opinion when asked -- even when that honesty comes with a price.
"Are there things I could do better? Absolutely," he said. "But the mistakes are what build your character and help you become the person that you are and that you can learn from. So they're only a mistake if you don't grow and learn from them."
Jimmie Johnson has a good grasp of the situation, having won six Sprint Cup titles himself. As a champion, he quickly learned how anything and everything he said was dissected and how seemingly innocent incidents could spiral out of control.
When the Hendrick Motorsports driver broke his wrist in a fall from atop a golf cart barely one month after wrapping up his first championship in 2006, the sports world took notice.
"It was beyond me that this was news," Johnson said of the golf cart incident. "It was on the (SportsCenter) ticker. We all learn in a variety of ways."
Keselowski has always voiced his opinion, Johnson said, but as a champion, his comments are seen in a whole new light.
"If you think about it," Johnson said, "Brad has always been very vocal, has always had a strong opinion on things. What's changed is the effect of the microphone.
"When you're not a champion, people hear it; they may not write it, print it, whatever it is. When you get the trophy, boom, it’s everywhere."
Johnson said he may not agree with some of Keselowski's views, "but he loves the sport and wants the sport to succeed and I respect that."
Drivers "are pretty outspoken in general," according to Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition and racing innovation, regardless of whether they've won championships.
Keselowski hasn't been any more vocal, or any less than many of those who came before him, he said.
"They critique what we do, they have input," he said. "I think if you put them all in a basket … from the Cales (Yarborough) and Darrells (Waltrip) to today's Jimmies and Brads or whoever, it's about the same.
"Sometimes what they say might work better at different parts of their career … sometimes they don’t line up; it's all in the timing of things.
"Drivers have different personalities -- some like to work quieter than others, some like to voice their opinions."
Keselowski says his 2013 performance wasn't impacted by his candid assessments of the sport -- but the fact remains that he failed to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup a year after winning it all.
A lone victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the fall pushed his career total to 10, but was little consolation. A year that began so strongly -- Keselowski's No. 2 Ford reeled off seven top-10s in the first eight races -- ended with a 14th-place points finish.
"It definitely wasn't good," he said of the performance, "but that was last year. Much like what I did in 2012 didn't count for much in 2013, and what you do in 2013 doesn't count for much in 2014.
"You have to reset. They do it for you with the points, so that's a good start."
Lessons were learned. Some things were missed and some bad breaks fell his team's way. No different than for many others in the garage.
"Long-term lessons … changing over with the manufacturer (from Dodge to Ford), and learning some things about yourself and the team after you come off a championship," he said. "Short term is just learning about the cars and the tracks and the changes that come with tires and everything that are week-to-week variables.
"I think there are two distinct groups of change to work through, and I think learning from those will only make you stronger."
In the meantime, Keselowski said, he’ll continue to speak out when he feels it is necessary.
"I’m still going to be vocal about something that I disagree about that there’s no progress or no change being made on," he said. "But if there's progress or change being made, then why be an (expletive)?"