Keselowski adapts to brighter glare

Brad Keselowski carried his championship cachet into Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.

But other than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. taking shots at the champ for his love life — or lack thereof — or the brutally honest interview in USA Today that ruffled NASCAR brass, no one really heard a peep out of Keselowski until Sunday, when the driver of the No. 2 Miller Ford raced to fourth place in the Daytona 500.

“What shot? We were all just clowning,” said Keselowski, before deflecting the comment with a laugh. “There are no shots.

“They all came after me last year. I’m not scared.”

As the defending Sprint Cup champion, however, Keselowski’s competition is relentless on and off the track. And at 29, Keselowski is still learning that sometimes it’s better to let your performance do the talking.

So far, he has done an admirable job.

After finishing second in the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix, he was sizing up the stage in the Media Center. When asked if Keselowski expected to be there on Sunday, he didn’t hesitate: “Yep.”

Keselowski, who finished fourth in the Sprint Cup race at Phoenix, barely missed the podium. That wasn’t the case last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he finished third.

Still, Keselowski was disappointed with the result. He made it clear that while he’s off to the best start of a season in his career, “The way I finished last year, I wanted to win. I wanted to win all three of these races, and I’m not happy unless we can do that.”

This weekend, the Cup tour rolls into Bristol Motor Speedway, where Keselowski has the opportunity to defend his title in the Food City 500. He has won two of the past three races at Thunder Valley. If Keselowski wins on Sunday, it will further set the tone for a repeat championship bid.

However, Keselowski still has his critics despite accumulating nine career Sprint Cup wins and team owner Roger Penske’s first title on NASCAR’s top tour in just three full seasons.

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson insists that “as mature as he wants to portray himself,” Keselowski still has “some growing to do.” That’s not hypocritical. Johnson acknowledges there were antics during his first title in 2006 that would offer pundits “plenty of things to point fingers at." And those same critics would likely enjoy Johnson’s late-night rendition of the Harlem Shake on the frontstretch at Daytona International Speedway after the No. 48 team won its second Daytona 500 last month.

Johnson, who leads the Cup standings by five points over Keselowski, clearly respects his rival and believes he has “the best of intentions for our sport, for his sponsor, for his team.” He just feels that Keselowski needs to be "more aware of his voice."

“Once you are the champion, your voice carries much further,” Johnson said. “The more success you have in the sport, the voice will carry further and further. I had my own experiences where I would just casually mention something, and I didn’t realize how far it went, and maybe I wasn’t as accurate as I needed to be.

“So, I think he’ll have a few moments like that which will rein him back in some, and make him think about what he says and be more calculated."

Nevertheless, it’s Keselowski’s ability to remain authentic that has attracted so many new and old fans to the driver of the Blue Deuce. And it’s a trait that has invited comparisons between the Michigander and the late Dale Earnhardt.

Yes, if Keselowski were running at the back of the pack, his comments wouldn’t draw the same notoriety. But those that know the driver also realize the thought he puts into his message — and that his words come from the heart.

Perhaps that’s why Penske wasn’t upset by Keselowski’s strong stances in USA Today. (He laid out his vision for the sport on the marketing and competition ends, including some pointed criticism of current practices.)

“Obviously, in this sport, people want to be open and honest,” Penske said. “Maybe some of the questions and answers were not what everyone wanted to see. I think it’s a learning process for him, personally. Quite honestly, he’s a great driver and a great young man. I think it’s time to just move on. It’s just a learning experience.”

Keselowski acknowledges that there have been plenty of lessons over the past year and particularly in the past few months as he’s represented NASCAR as its champion. Patience continues to be a challenge for the champ. When it comes to “growth,” Keselowski is referring to statistics and categories — where he can and will improve. However, he also understands “the importance of people and relationships.”

“Whenever I get comfortable with people and relationships, they go the wrong way,” Keselowski said. “You have to keep working and working and working. Obviously, there are going to be people you can’t trust in your life, but I try not to surround myself with them.

“My largest challenge at any given time is in bouncing my role between competition, sponsors, fans and media.”

And what about Stenhouse’s remark about not having a lady in his life?

“I don’t go over girlfriends,” Keselowski said. “I don’t take female — or a female to the track — as not to answer that. I’ve dated quite extensively at one point, and it wasn’t going the course I wanted it to go. I had a fairly long relationship in 2010, and it didn’t work out. I allowed that relationship to get somewhat in the public eye in NASCAR. That did the relationship no favors. In fact, it actually hurt it to where I’m now actually hesitant to ever let it happen.

“I’m not there. I’m happy where I’m at. I want to focus on what matters — that’s driving the car and trying to win races.”