CONCORDNASCAR driver Brad Keselowski is 29 now and caught somewhere between roles. He is not a young punk, nor is he an elder statesman. He is not quite a black hat, not quite a white hat. He is universally respected but not necessarily loved. He is the defending Sprint Cup champion but not necessarily the favorite to repeat in 2013.
Keselowski is particularly good at two things, however, and that has led him to where he is as he gears up to try to win Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600. First, he can drive the heck out of a racecar. Second, he is as authentic as any driver in the sport.
Watch Keselowski’s rough-edged style on the track and he seems like he would be at home racing guys from the 1960s like Curtis Turner or Fireball Roberts. He also delights in sticking a pin into NASCAR’s balloon on occasion, believing that the sport often takes itself too seriously.
“You have to know the moments to be serious and know the moments to have fun,” he said in our interview. “Life is about balance. I approach racing the same way. There are moments when you need to be really serious and you need to understand what’s on the line. But not every moment is going to be one of those. This sport is defined by a lot of ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ moments. Sometimes the waiting is serious. Most of the time it’s not.”
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To call Keselowski strictly “old school,” however, is to paint with too broad of a brush. No one in NASCAR makes better use of social media, particularly Twitter. In some of his most well-known “hurry-up-and-wait” moments, in February 2012, Keselowski tweeted repeatedly from his racecar at the Daytona 500. The cars were stopped because there was a fire on the track. So Keselowski got out his iPhone, started answering fans’ questions and posted pictures of the blaze and other drivers.
In the process, he tripled his followers on Twitter in one night – from 65,000 to more than 200,000 – and became NASCAR’s poster child for pushing the digital envelope.
On the track, Keselowski likes to push the envelope, too – albeit with mixed results compared to one year ago. He sits seventh in the points standings but hasn’t won a race yet as the Sprint Cup season approaches its halfway point. He won five races last year.
I asked him if he thought he was a different driver than he was at 25, when other drivers seemed to more frequently complain about his aggressive tactics.
“That’s a basic question about whether you change as you get older,” Keselowski said. “The first thing that would come to my mind is ‘Hell no.’ But I think you change subtly whether you realize it or not. Those around you can probably notice. It’s hard to realize as it is happening. So I guess my big-picture view is that I am changing – I just don’t know where.”
Certainly, his outspokenness hasn’t gone anywhere. Keselowski fires off salvos on Twitter, then sometimes has to apologize for them, then moves on to his next 140-character missive. His misunderstanding about David Ragan’s restart position at Talladega caused Keselowski to start ranting on Twitter about the outcome and made him look sour after Ragan’s victory. He later apologized publicly and said it wasn’t his “brightest moment.”
But he also said the Ragan incident won’t change his frequent use of Twitter, where he now has more than 411,000 followers and tweets frequently about whatever is on his mind (Recent example: “The older I get, the better ‘Days of Thunder’ becomes.’)
“Look, I’m not perfect,” Keselowski said in a group interview this week. “I know that and I don’t pretend to be. But I think what makes Twitter great is it’s a way to really reach out to our fans and really express how we feel and they have access to that. … That’s how I felt in that moment and, like any human being, I have the right to change my mind about it, and I did.”
Keselowski turns 30 in February. “I’m damn near an old fart,” he said. He would like to be a leader in the garage area and declared that in his speech at the year-end NASCAR banquet. (Keselowski went to the podium with no notes for his speech, which was a major rarity at that scripted event.)
But leadership will take time. His opinions don’t carry the weight of multiple Cup champions such as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, who is perhaps the driver most like Keselowski in terms of his cheerfully anti-establishment mindset.
When driver Matt Kenseth was asked this week if he thought Keselowski was a leader, he deadpanned: “Nah, I don’t think so. I don’t know. If he’s called any meetings to order, I wasn’t invited to them.”
Keselowski doesn’t worry about many things. He said he hears people say “That’s not behavior becoming of a champion” a fair amount but lets it roll off his back. While many drivers swear by workout routines, Keselowski doesn’t have one, saying his “mental strength” is all he needs.
He said on the rare day he has completely off from both race and charity work that he likes to spend it “reading, sitting down and thinking, sleeping and chasing some women.”
But Keselowski is tired of not winning. He thinks he has a car – his No. 2 Ford is nicknamed the “Blue Deuce” -- that will compete Sunday.
Said Keselowski, who qualified 20th for the 600: “If there was a right-side seat in my car and you rode with me … you’d go, ‘Damn, we’re the fastest car out here.’ Unfortunately, we haven’t produced those results. And that’s on us to get right.”