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2012 champion earns his hardware

December 01, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Keselowski speaks off the cuff about winning first Sprint Cup Series title

LAS VEGAS -- Calling himself a "lottery winner" NASCAR's newest Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski accepted his championship ring and $5 million paycheck then promised to post a photo of himself on Twitter celebrating later with a large, cold Miller Lite beer.

It's a new era in NASCAR and the 28-year old Michigan native is prepared to lead the way -- delivering his unscripted, teleprompter-less 12-minute acceptance speech to a rapt audience Friday night in the Wynn Las Vegas.

* Video: Keselowski thanks his crew for their efforts en route to winning championship

"I scribbled a couple things down on a napkin while I was sitting on stage waiting,'' said Keselowski, his voice hoarse after the week-long champion's celebration in Las Vegas.

"It didn't really hit me until I saw that banner hanging there. I can't believe my name is somewhere near Dale Earnhardt's."


As good as Keselowski is on the race track, it is his ability to reach beyond that excites and infuses this sport with a new feel. Judging by the vibe at this awards banquet, he's already off to a good start.

The ceremony opened with a The Beatles "Love" show performed by Cirque de Soleil and featured comic Howie Mandel as the emcee.

And celebrity guest presenters surprised the audience and the 10 top-ranked drivers in the standings.

Mandel got a huge response joking that Jeff Gordon purposely ran into him and pushed him into a wall while he was walking down a hallway at casino -- a reference to the Gordon and Clint Bowyer incident at Phoenix.

Olympic distance runner Meb Keflezighi came on stage to present Bowyer with a runner's number so he could participate in Sunday's Las Vegas Marathon -- a reference to Bowyer's mad scramble jog to find Gordon after the incident at Phoenix.

The top 10 drivers delivered speeches -- some light-hearted, others more heart-felt. Gordon congratulated Keselowski's legendary team owner Roger Penske for finally adding NASCAR's ultimate crown to his 15 Indianapolis 500 victories.

* Video: Gordon reflects on season full of ups and downs

Then he joked to the sport's most famous and prolific social media user Keselowski, "I tweeted my congratulations to you.''

Gordon's feelings toward Penske were a theme of the evening and when Penske had the opportunity to speak, also unscripted, he was genuinely humbled and grateful for his position -- at last -- at the NASCAR champion's head table.

"The thing I am most proud of is that you have to earn your way in and we did,'' Penske said.

Then he acknowledged last year's champion Tony Stewart in the audience and offered him a ride in the Indianapolis 500 next year proposing he do the Memorial Day weekend double with NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600.

"You available?'' Penske asked Stewart.

After a few words from Sprint Chairman Dan Hesse, then it was time to introduce Keselowski. NASCAR Chairman Brian France presented his diamond and gold champion's ring to Keselowski saying, "you're going to get a lot of hardware in your life, but non will be more special than your first championship ring.''

"I think he's going to drive the sport even further. He's going to be a great champion and someone we will all say, deserves it."


And even though he's been honored, feted, roasted, and toasted all week, Keselowski said the true impact didn't hit him until he entered the ballroom and saw his championship banner hanging among the sport's greats.

"It didn't really hit me until I saw that banner hanging there,'' Keselowski said. "I can't believe my name is somewhere near Dale Earnhardt's.

"I never thought I'd see my name on a list with those people.

"I love the challenge to make the sport even better. I've been blessed to be able to compete in a sport some great people before me have built up to this level. It's up to everyone in the sport to not only maintain the current level but to make it better.''

While Keselowski's outgoing and sometime unpredictable personality has distinguished him from recent veteran champions, it also defines him and this era -- a hard-nosed, blue-collar racer that longtime fans can appreciate and a hip, social media new generation driver sure to attract new NASCAR fans.

"To see Brad and how he's going to represent the sport probably means the most to me, what you see is what you get,'' Penske said. "He didn't have a speech prepared, he said what he felt from the heart and you can see the quality in this young man.

"Three years into the sport he's able to win like this. How many people have done that. I think it shows his depth and commitment.

"I think he's going to drive the sport even further. He's going to be a great champion and someone we will all say, deserves it.''