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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A casual conversation with a driver in the Sprint Cup garage at Daytona International Speedway during last week's test suddenly was interrupted by a tug on the arm and the shout, "Watch out!"
As a car came within a few feet of our heels before disappearing onto the track, it begged to be asked, "Who the hell was that?"
"[Brad] Keselowski," the driver said. "He's a moron."
|Darrell Waltrip, aka "Jaws," was known for stirring things up back in the day.|
There's a bad boy in every NASCAR season. Often it's the young driver who becomes so aggressive and eager trying to impress that he ticks off fellow drivers. That often earns him a reputation that translates into becoming a villain with the fans.
Last year it was Keselowski, who set the stage for becoming the target in 2009 after his run-in with Carl Edwards on the last lap of the spring race at Talladega, and later run-ins with Denny Hamlin in the Nationwide Series.
In 2006 it was Kyle Busch, who was deemed so out of control in the first two races that Tony Stewart said he was going to kill somebody and Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, "He just needs to realize that he's right on that brink of really pissing off somebody that he don't want to piss off."
Kurt Busch had his moments early in his career sparked by volatile clashes with Jimmy Spencer. Stewart has had more than his share of time in the black hat as well, whether it was on the track with drivers or with reporters and Goodyear. Even Jeff Gordon went through a spell early in his career where he was considered a bit over the top.
Three-time cup champion Darrell Waltrip once was so bad that he earned the nickname "Jaws," among other things.
"It has something to do with attitude, and usually not a good one," Waltrip deadpanned as he relaxed on a couch in the hospitality suite for the NASCAR media tour. "Early on you hear people talking about you, and even though it's not good talking about you, they think it's cool.
"But at some point you wake up and say, 'This is not good.' I finally said, 'Man, I can't do this my whole career. I don't want people hating me all the time.' "
Some embrace wearing the bad-boy target more than others. Kyle Busch has, by playing up to the boos with his signature bow while standing on the door of his car or truck after a victory.
Keselowski definitely seems to like the spotlight his image has attracted. That never was more evident than at the August Bristol race when, during prerace introductions, he shouted "Kyle Busch is an ass" over the public address system.
He's did nothing to back away from that during Monday night's media tour stop at Penske Racing.
"I still feel the same way," said Keselowski, reminding us that he repeated the words recently on Twitter.
So who are the candidates for this year's villain? Perhaps rookie Trevor Bayne, who will run a limited Cup schedule for the Wood Brothers. Or maybe reigning rookie of the year Kevin Conway will stand up to critics who said he didn't belong in a Cup car last year. We probably won't know for sure until something happens in the heat of battle.
Or maybe last year's bad boys will be this year's bad boys.
"I guess if I don't know it remains the same," Keselowski said.
Here's my unofficial list of candidates:
• Brad Keselowski: He's as brash as ever, calling BS on a reporter during the media tour stop. He admittedly has to step it up at the Cup level after finishing 25th in points with no wins and two top-10s. He believes attitude is a big part of stepping it up, and he has no regrets for anything that got him where he is.
• Joey Logano: He showed some fire last season, saying Delana Harvick wore the firesuit in Kevin Harvick's family at Pocono and confronting Ryan Newman in the garage at Michigan. He seems tired of being pushed around and ready to live up to the hype that has followed him since his teenage years. The question is, how far will he push back?
• Kyle Busch: Some believe his offseason marriage will settle him down, but don't count on it. You get the feeling he'll always wear the bad-boy image on his sleeve, even when his sleeve is pink and covered with kittens, bunnies and puppies.
• Kevin Harvick: Few are better at instigating and pushing buttons than "Happy." We saw it in the Chase with the mind games he played with Denny Hamlin. We heard it during testing when he talked about changing the pass code to unlock his cell phone to 4848 so he knows who he has to beat (Jimmie Johnson). Don't be fooled by the smile; he'll still run over you to get what he wants.
|Even Jeff Gordon, one of the most respected racers in NASCAR, went toe-to-toe against Jeff Burton at Texas in 2010.|
• Jeff Gordon: You're never too old to become the villain. Gordon ran over more drivers during the first half of last season than arguably anybody. And did you see his "Kung Fu Fighting" moves when he went after Jeff Burton at Texas? Losing drives people to do crazy things, and crazy things can create a villain.
• Ryan Newman: Nobody will argue he's one of the more aggressive drivers in the garage. The problem is he's a dog lover and it's hard to become a villain when you love dogs.
• Tony Stewart: Did you read about how he recently tossed his helmet at the co-owner of the Sprint Car track in Australia during a heated argument over track conditions? And then was questioned by police? He may have mellowed some, but where there's smoke, there's fire.
You get the feeling Keselowski wants to remain the villain. Since the end of last season he's become a lot more vocal in social media, taking over his Twitter account, which had been run by his public relations person.
Keselowski was so outspoken on Twitter about full-time Cup drivers not being allowed to run for the Nationwide Series title this season that the reigning Nationwide champion got a call from NASCAR.
"I don't get paid to think, or at least that's what people keep trying to tell me," he said smartly.
Say what you want about the bad boys, they are fun to cover and usually brighter than we give them credit for being. Keselowski has turned into one of the top quotes in the garage because he doesn't curtail his words any more than he curtails his actions behind the wheel.
"I enjoy it," Keselowski said. "There's a lot of issues where the sport needs its representatives to educate the fans in a better way than it has. That [Twitter] is my opportunity, so I try to take advantage of it.
"Whether it's my fans or somebody else's fans, half the fans are there because they don't like me."
Waltrip understands. He used to say things simply to fire up the situation. Some might argue that his early bad-boy reputation kept him from making the second class of NASCAR's Hall of Fame.
Everybody has a turn at it, getting whipped. You just kind of try to get through it as easily as you can and keep your job in the process. I've been fortunate enough to do that.” -- Brad Keselowski
"I remember Richard Petty told me one time he didn't know how I kept my sponsors," Waltrip said.
Being the bad boy hasn't hurt Keselowski in the sponsor department. As Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish Jr. noted, they both weren't very good in points last season -- Hornish was four spots back in 29th -- but Keselowski wound up with the No. 2 Miller Lite car and Hornish wound up without a sponsor or Cup ride.
Kyle Busch and Stewart don't seem to have trouble attracting sponsors, either, although both have apologized to a few over the years.
"I'll do it," Newman said when asked who could be the bad guy this year. "Kyle won the most races [in NASCAR's top three series in '10], Keselowski won the Nationwide championship, Stewart is a champion. It seems like it's a pretty good deal to be the bad guy."
You could do worse.
Stewart believes there would be a lot fewer bad guys today if Dale Earnhardt hadn't died 10 years ago. He said the seven-time champion had a way of putting his arm around an aggressive young driver and setting him straight.
"The funny thing is, I think Tony Stewart is the new Earnhardt," Keselowski said.
So have there been any of those arm-around-the-shoulder moments between Stewart and Keselowski?
"He's looked at me funny a few times, but not really talked to me," Keselowski said with a smile.
As Stewart noted, being the bad boy isn't necessarily bad, because the honor doesn't typically fall onto somebody without talent.
"It's kind of almost a compliment to a certain degree," Stewart said. "It's normally a guy that's doing a good job -- he's just not doing it the right way. A lot of times it's just teaching you patience and knowing these races are twice as long or four times as long as they used to be.
"Everyone learns. It's just a matter of getting through to the head to realize that you can be the best guy out there, but if you don't work well with the other 42 guys you still can't win a race. We just won't let it happen."
Keselowski realized that to a degree last season. He learned to back away and race smarter as the season went on, while still maintaining his aggressiveness.
But he's still a bad boy and proud to wear the target that comes with it.
"Everybody has a turn at it, getting whipped," Keselowski said. "You just kind of try to get through it as easily as you can and keep your job in the process. I've been fortunate enough to do that."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.