Commentary

Keselowski will take some chances

Updated: November 6, 2012, 7:30 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Brad Keselowski had been in Las Vegas for almost 24 hours and still hadn't ventured over to a blackjack table, his game of choice in Sin City.

Despite what you see on the track, what you saw on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway when he ignored his crew chief's call to pit for two tires and stayed out with fewer than 25 laps remaining, the Penske Racing driver isn't a big gambler.

And when he does gamble, you'll typically find him at the $15 to $20 tables. None of that high-roller stuff for him.

"Have you seen that 30-for-30 on 'Broke?'" Keselowski said Wednesday of the ESPN documentary series film about how millionaire athletes lose all of their money. "It's a good career goal to not be on that show."

[+] EnlargeBrad Keselowski
Jeff Gross/Getty Images/NASCARPart of the attraction fans have to Brad Keselowski is how adept he has proven to be with social media.

That doesn't mean Keselowski doesn't like to gamble. He does. He just doesn't like to take huge chances.

"That's why I go to a low-dollar table," said Keselowski, in Las Vegas to promote sponsors Cooper Standard, Draw-Tite and Reese Towpower for his Truck Series organization. "I take low-risk gambles that have high payoffs. That's my style."

That style has Keselowski only two points behind five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson with three races left in the Chase. That style has many believing this 28-year-old from Michigan can be the new face of NASCAR.

In many ways, the sport needs Keselowski to win the title. Nothing against Johnson -- he's first class in everything he says and does, and way underappreciated despite all he's accomplished.

But after sitting through a three-hour panel discussion on the future of motorsports in which a top NASCAR executive, the heads of Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge, a track president and others talked about the need to better relate to the young smartphone and iPad generation, you began to think of who might fit that role in NASCAR.

You began to think of Keselowski.

Think about all the fans he attracted when he tweeted pictures from his phone during the Daytona 500 after Juan Pablo Montoya created a huge fireball when he collided with a jet dryer under caution.

Josh Buchanan, 30, among the first of about 120 to get in line for an autograph at the SEMA Show, signed up for Twitter during the 500 just to follow Keselowski. His wife, 25, instantly became a huge fan.

Think about all the attention Keselowski created during Champion's Week in Vegas almost a year ago when he showed up for the coat-and-tie awards luncheon wearing blue jeans.

That, by the way, Keselowski insists was overblown. The way he explains it, it was.

"We take the sport way too damn seriously," he said. "We're trying so hard to be so professional that sometimes we lose sight of what's important and what's not."

Think about all the attention Keselowski brought to the sport in 2009 when he ruffled the feathers of a few veterans such as Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.

He may be as close as NASCAR has to a Tanner Foust, a rock star Global RallyCross champion and television host who Ford is promoting the heck out of here. Or Luke Johnson, a 19-year-old star on the TORC Off-Road Racing Series.

At least when it comes to that 18-to-34-year-old demographic the sport so desperately wants to attract.

"Big time! Big time!" said Ralph Gilles, the president and CEO of SRT Brand and senior vice president at Chrysler Group LLC, who served on the panel.

It actually was Gilles who first encouraged Keselowski to get active on Twitter and other forms of social media.

"Now he's a leader of that world [in NASCAR]," Gilles said. "He's somebody the young people can aspire to want to be."

Unfortunately for Gilles, he loses that image to Ford next year with Dodge leaving the sport so it can focus on that new generation of automobile buyer with models such as the Dart that is featured in RallyCross.

"It's tearing me up right now, to be honest with you," Gilles said. "Everything we've been working on for 11 years is happening."

It is happening in large part because of Keselowski. Had Chrysler known he was going to be this good, that he would have the potential to be the face of the sport, Dodge may have been more aggressive in pursuing a deal with team owner Roger Penske.

"In that way he's a model citizen and he's done wonders for the image of NASCAR," Gilles said.

Keselowski is edgy. More importantly, he is authentic. Watching him sign autographs, it is apparent he understands how to relate to young and old, male and female.

He realizes that despite fewer people in the grandstands, there are more eyes on the sport than ever through television, computers and smartphones. He understands why people his age aren't coming to the track so much.

"My generation does not want to go to a facility where they have to sit in traffic and deal with all that b------- when they can just watch it on TV or on the computer with just as much access if not more -- for less money," Keselowski said.

Keselowski shows that perhaps it's not a young driver NASCAR needs to attract a younger audience.

It's one who can relate.

"More relevant?" Keselowski asked. "Is that what you're saying?"

He's also insightful.

"Relevance is always important," Keselowski continued. "People talk all the time about Dale [Earnhardt] Sr. and why he was so popular. It appears to me he was very relevant."

Keselowski is interrupted by his public relations machine. Time to go to another appearance, so he swaps his dress shoes for tennis shoes -- his feet still hurt from the broken ankle he suffered last year -- and heads for a black limousine that is three times the length of his Miller Lite Dodge.

Comfortably buckled up, recalling how his limo here last year was T-boned by another car, Keselowski continued with the Earnhardt discussion. While there are real similarities, from his ability to relate to the working man to owning his own race team to growing up in a racing family, he doesn't allow the comparison to go further.

"In this sport you're not allowed to compare yourself to certain people, and he's one of them," Keselowski said.

Keselowski is smart, too.

And truthfully, the sport doesn't need another Earnhardt as much as it needs a driver fans can identify with. Keselowski gets that. He didn't tweet during the Daytona 500 to be like somebody else.

"I try to be authentic," he said. "I didn't do it because I thought it would be big. I did it because I thought it would be neat and cool. Obviously, that translated to my generation. Others have the same opportunities and don't think that much of them."

Maybe NASCAR has an opportunity with Keselowski. Did you know that only 49 percent of the population gets a driver's license by the age of 17 nowadays compared to 79 percent in 1979?

NASCAR and manufacturers need drivers that young buyers relate to so there'll be as much interest in cool cars as there is in cool electronics.

NASCAR needs somebody fresh, and Keselowski definitely is that.

"American culture is changing and we must keep up with the times," Keselowski said. "I know we can't keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results."

That being said, Keselowski correctly doesn't let himself think much about the possibility of being back in Vegas a month from now as the champion.

"Anytime I start thinking about it I stop myself and remind I have a lot of work to do," he said.

That's another reason Keselowski isn't planning to spend much time at the blackjack table before heading to Texas. This is a business trip, a time to meet with sponsors and promote 18-year-old driver Ryan Blaney -- as well as the sport.

That's why even when Keselowski does gamble, you don't see him at the high-dollar tables.

"I want to be able to go all-in to where people says, 'You're crazy,'" he said. "I love that. When I lose, I don't lose a lot."

But he may be the best bet for the future of the sport.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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