Martin Fennellymfennelly@tampatrib.comDAYTONA BEACH Meet the future. And fasten your seat belts.Fennelly: Defending Cup champion a mix of old and new schools
In last year’s season-opening Daytona 500, after driver Juan Pablo Montoya hit a track jet dryer, which then burst into flames, Brad Keselowski, a bit of a fireball himself, thought, “Well, that’s something.” So, while still driving under caution, he snapped a photo with his phone and sent it out on Twitter. By next day, he had 100,000 new followers.
Cut to the end of last season, when Keselowski clinched the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead. He appeared live on “SportsCenter” for an interview while holding a gargantuan double-wide, roughly 2-foot-tall glass of his sponsor’s beer, which he swigged one, two, three, seven times while gabbing.
Did we mention that Keselowski’s two goals after winning the championship (three, if you count defending it) were date a celebrity and, yes, buy an army tank for his house? No luck yet, apparently, on either count.
“Why a tank?” Keselowski said. “It’s cool, man — a man and a tank. There’s just something very rootsy about that. A man should own a tank.”
Meet the future. Or is it the past? Is this 29-year-old Michigan native a throwback even as he races through social media? Does Brad Keselowski, Crazy Kez, possess enough old-time, let-it-fly aura to help save a sport that is fighting dwindling interest?
“There’s nothing wrong with a little style, is there?” Keselowski asked.
Today brings the twin 150-mile qualifying races for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Keselowski will battle for a spot. Battling comes naturally to him, like style and fun — and driving.
Keselowski was a champion in
NASCAR’s Nationwide series and won the 2012 Sprint Cup title, along with five races, in just his third full season on the game’s top rung. His motor doesn’t stop when he hops from the car.
Keselowski’s peers mostly admire his driving and enjoy his personality, but sometimes he makes them cringe.
Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, overtaken by Keselowski in the Chase for the championship, can’t help but grin as he discusses young Bradley.
“Watching him on ‘SportsCenter’ following the race, trying to drink a beer, I’m not sure it was the best thing for our sport, how he handled that one,” Johnson said. “Brad, as mature as he wants to portray himself, he has some growing to do. And now he’s in the spotlight as champion, and I think we all sit back and chuckle at times at some of the things he says and does.”
“I don’t know if I’m an old-school driver,” Keselowski said. “I think I have my own way of doing things. And there’s a little pride in thinking that some of that is back to the way some of the earlier people in the sport did it. But you have to be relevant, too. You can’t do things that were done in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s and feel like you’re going to be relevant to today’s fans.”
Today’s fans loved when Keselowski tweeted from his car during a red-flag period at Phoenix after Jeff Gordon intentionally crashed Clint Bowyer and a brawl ensued (hey, who needs to grow up?). NASCAR fined Keselowski $25,000 for that Phoenix tweet. Funny, but he wasn’t fined for the tweeted photo at Daytona.
“When it comes to moments like that, they’re really only cool because they’re authentic,” Keselowski said. “They’re new, they’re fresh and they’re authentic. They’re not forced. I do a lot of stuff on social media. I get a lot of people who approach me with ideas and the ones that are worth a damn are cool, fresh, they have style and they’re authentic.
“When that happened at Daytona, I just did it. I didn’t think too much about it. I saw, ‘This is kind of something different. I’d like to take a picture of this and send it out.’ When you do things out of that spot in your heart and in your mind, kind of showcase who you are, what you think is cool, other people appreciate it.”
“He’s a great guy,” Jimmie Johnson said. “He has the best of intentions for our sport, for his sponsor, for his team. He just needs to mature a little.”
Brad Keselowski, authentic all the way, drove a National Guard tank at a race in Kansas City last year, and he all but saluted it after. He has actually priced tanks. “They’re very expensive,” Keselowski acknowledged, but at least he knows exactly where he would put one.
“Right at the end of my driveway,” he said.
That would make two loose cannons on the property.
Meet the future. Ready, aim, tweet.