In 2012, Brad Keselowski became a social media superstar and a first-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
A year later, Keselowski fought the law and the law won.
In this case "the law" was NASCAR, and the 2012 champ last year found out the hard way what dozens of drivers who have come before him found out: If you try too aggressively to buck the system, you will be the one who loses, not those in charge.
Keselowski, brash, charismatic and outspoken, is a favorite of reporters who love his candor and frankness, two traits in desperately low supply in the NASCAR garage. And he turned the social media world on its ear two years ago with his in-car Daytona 500 Tweets while the race was red-flagged after Juan Pablo Montoya clobbered a jet dryer.
There’s no question about Keselowski’s talents behind the wheel. He gave Penske Racing both its first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and its first NASCAR Nationwide Series championship, as well.
But some of Keselowski’s antics — from appearing to be visibly intoxicated in his post-race championship party in 2012 to criticizing baseline concussion testing last fall — did not sit well with the sanctioning body. Perhaps it was not surprising, therefore, that last year, Keselowski became only the second driver since 2004 to win the Cup championship one season and fail to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup the next.
Asked at the recent NASCAR media tour if being outspoken hurt him last season, Keselowski acknowledged it did.
"I don’t think it helped me," said Keselowski, who celebrated his 30th birthday Feb. 12. "Nobody wrote me any checks for being outspoken. Maybe I did it wrong. … It certainly didn’t help."
But last year and the year before, Keselowski likely would have elaborated on that comment at length. By the same token, when asked about his controversial views on NASCAR’s decision to institute baseline concussion testing, Keselowski simply said, "I feel quite confident in what I said earlier."
Keselowski didn’t blame last season’s disappointment on politics or because of things he said. Instead, there were plenty of other issues that kept him from defending his championship.
"We had too many mechanical failures, and we’ve certainly addressed those," said Keselowski. "… And we had too many issues on pit road, and then I had too many issues behind the wheel. It’s a diverse range. You remove any one of them and we’re right where we need to be to be a championship contender, and we feel like we’ve addressed all of them."
Keselowski’s team owner, Roger Penske, has had his share of high-octane personalities over the years, and the boss is still squarely in his driver’s corner.
"To me, I think it’s a learning curve," Penske said of Keselowski’s 2013 struggles. "I think it makes him (Keselowski) a better driver, because he has to come back now and show people it wasn’t just a fluke in 2012. … He’s an elite driver and certainly drove a lot of success for our team."
Penske also has cause for optimism with Joey Logano coming off a career year in his first season with the team, and young Ryan Blaney is in the wings.
"When I think of our drivers, I think about youth," said Penske. "If you take our two Cup drivers, the average age is 26 years old, and then you put Ryan Blaney in there, it’s 24 years old, so I think we’re looking at continuity and certainly these drivers have the ability to win. They’re winners today already. They won in their series in 2013 and we expect a lot in 2014."
So does Keselowski.
"There’s areas to improve across the board and I’m certainly one of them," said Keselowski. "And I’m not going to hide from the mistakes I made last year, but I also have to look forward — 2013 is over and we feel like we’re very close to where we need to be."