“Make some noise,” Brad Keselowski yelled to the fans as he hoisted a supersize Miller Lite stein high over his head.
As the amber liquid swayed with the driver, the mob responded in kind as they embraced their new Sprint Cup champion, “BRAD! BRAD! BRAD!”
Keselowski turned and yelled, “Smile everyone, you’re on Twitter. Pressing the button, BOOM!”
Not surprisingly, they erupted again.
What’s not to love?
In a world where it’s easy to assimilate with the crowd, Keselowski retained his individuality throughout the process of winning the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup title. And an original is precisely what NASCAR needs right now. A 20-something who promises, “expect the unexpected” and delivers it on a regular basis. For a sport looking for a bridge to the younger set, a Gen Y racer is a great place to start.
The remaining rubber on his burnt-out tires was still smoking as he rifled off his first tweet. In the three hours it took to complete Sunday’s Ford 400, Keselowski’s Twitter following increased by 10,000 fans. With a Twitter base of nearly 335,000, his following is the third largest in NASCAR behind fellow drivers Danica Patrick and Jimmie Johnson.
But it’s Keselowski’s on-track talents that currently attract the greatest respect — and Sunday night’s performance was no exception. The Penske racer started third on Sunday, knowing all he had to do was finish 15th to win the title and hold off five-time champion Johnson.
Keselowski held his own in the top 10 until his second pit stop during the first caution on Lap 80. He restarted 13th, then battled his way back into the top 10 again. Johnson positioned himself to lead one lap as the third set of stops began. On Lap 129, Keselowski cycled out to 12th in the field — but still well within the comfort zone.
Two hundred laps into the race, his No. 2 crew was deciding whether to gamble on fuel mileage to push the car to one more stop until the finish of the race or take the conservative route. The risk proved costly as Keselowski ran out of gas on Lap 204.
As conservative as the crew had been, Keselowski was suddenly mired in 24th. However, the team would catch a break when Johnson’s crew fumbled on its Lap 213 stop when the left rear lug nut was not tight. Johnson was forced to return to the pits and correct the situation on the next lap but dropped off the lead lap and back to 25th.
While Johnson’s situation offered breathing room for Keselowski, 13 laps later the No. 48 team’s night was over when a drive line broke. Initially, crew chief Chad Knaus called Johnson to the pits but the required work forced the team to the garage.
On Lap 228, Keselowski spotter Joey Meier delievered the news to his driver, “The 48 has gone back to the garage, something broke.” Keselowski was running in the top 10 then. At the time, he didn’t show any emotion. But at that point relief set in.
“If he’s in the garage, let’s race,” Keselowski said over the radio.
Nineteen laps later, NASCAR officially declared him the champion. But Keselowski wasn’t finished. After a quick splash for gas, he returned to the track 23rd, but was determined to finish at least 15th — just so the naysayers wouldn’t question his accomplishment.
“I’m so thankful that we drove back to (finish) 15th so that I don’t have to hear for the rest of my life about how if the 48 had not had problems, he would have won the championship,” Keselowski said. “So thanks, (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) for doing that.”
Keselowski finished the season with a career-high five wins and a 39-point advantage over Clint Bowyer, who overtook Johnson and finished second in the standings.
The third-generation racer from Detroit never strayed far from his roots throughout the journey to the champion’s stage on Sunday night. But while his family instilled a strong work ethic in Keselowski, it was his relationship over the last three years with Penske Racing that taught him how to be part of a team and now a champion.
“Throughout my whole life I’ve been told I’m not big enough, I’m 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,” Keselowski said.
“It took ‘til this year for me to realize that was right. I’m not big enough, 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 do to anything we want to do and it’s because of these guys. I can’t be here without them, I really can’t.”