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LAS VEGAS -- Brad Keselowski is in the backseat of a black stretch limousine on Wednesday, not far from his posh hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, when out of nowhere a small black car T-bones the passenger side of the limo and sends everyone on a 180-degree spin.
"In the wrong place at the wrong time," said the Penske Racing driver, who was unhurt in the accident.
Late in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, about as far removed from the atmosphere of Las Vegas as one can get, Keselowski was headed for a potential top-5 finish that would have put him in the thick of the championship picture.
|Brad Keselowski was looking good in last week's race at Martinsville until somebody else's mess turned into his own.|
Then out of nowhere, Joey Logano hit Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car, which hit Denny Hamlin's car, which hit Keselowski's car and sent Keselowski into a wild spin.
Were it not for that chain reaction, which never would have happened had it not been for the retaliation party between Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth, Keselowski might be within 10 points of Carl Edwards with three races remaining instead of in fourth place, 27 back.
"Retaliation on the track is juvenile and hurts the reputation of both the sport and really everybody," Keselowski said between sponsor appearances. "It's important in this sport that the best teams win. When you allow elements like that to interject the way the race plays out, it changes everything.
"That's why a lot of people [equate NASCAR] to wrestling. The winner is no longer determined on who is the best. It's just not the way it should be."
Keselowski's solution is to park for the next race any driver who retaliates within the final 100 laps of a race.
"You have changed the outcome of the race and you have robbed the fans, in my mind, of what was going to be a proper outcome," he said. "You've robbed the sport."
Keselowski has lots of ideas like this, but understands he probably won't get the ear of NASCAR unless he wins a Cup title to go with the Nationwide Series title he won last year.
That's too bad.
Keselowski is as natural as a spokesman as he is on this Las Vegas scene, whether it's signing autographs for a new sponsor at the SEMA Auto Show, hanging out at the blackjack table in his casino hotel or taking a date to a peep show.
Yes, Keselowski picked the Holly Madison Peepshow at Planet Hollywood to entertain on Tuesday night.
"It's a little too risqué, but not too far," Keselowski said.
In other words, it's a little like Keselowski -- edgy, close to crossing the line without going over it.
"In moderation," Keselowski said with a laugh. "The success in my career, and very few people have been able to understand or comprehend it, has been from knowing when to push buttons and when not to."
Following Keselowski through the crowded halls of SEMA at the Las Vegas Convention Center, watching him entertain the crowd at a Discount Tire event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it's obvious he pushes the right buttons with fans.
People are drawn to his smile and magnetic personality. They like him because he doesn't put on airs, because he speaks a language they understand. They like that he says what's on his mind, not necessarily to bring attention to himself but to bring attention to the sport or sponsor he's promoting.
Of the five drivers still in contention to win the title, Keselowski may be what NASCAR needs most. Nothing against Edwards, Stewart, Kevin Harvick or Kenseth. They all would represent the sport well as the heir to Jimmie Johnson's throne.
But Keselowski is fresh. He has fresh ideas, too. And most important, he's not afraid to share them.
"Which is sorely needed," the 27-year-old driver said. "I wish those that had won championships before me would be a better leader for the sport. It's not to pick on any of them. There's just a lot of things that could be handled better if there was a championship driver who understood better about planting seeds and so forth."
Planting seeds is what brought Keselowski to Sin City. He came to introduce two new sponsors (Cooper Standard and Cequent) for his Truck Series team and attend the event at LVMS. He believes that to make the sport stronger you have to be an active participant in growing it, not just appear on a late-night talk show and be entertaining.
"I think he'd make a good champion," said Dan Riner, a Vegas native who arrived 20 minutes early to get in line for Keselowski's autograph session.
Were it not for the retaliation at Martinsville, those championship hopes would be much brighter.
Getting to Vegas was a good distraction.
"It doesn't hurt," Keselowski said.
But unlike most of the fortune seekers here, Keselowski doesn't consider himself a long shot to win the title. He still believes he has the team that can win it all if he can perform as he was before Sunday's misfortune and if Edwards has some misfortune.
"I don't believe Carl will be able to keep the pace he has been," Keselowski said of Edwards, whose worst finish in the first seven Chase races is 11th thanks to turning two bad days into top-10 finishes.
See what I mean about saying what's on his mind? Most drivers wouldn't be so blunt in their assessment of the competition.
"He's had the most consistent car," Keselowski continued on Edwards. "But I don't believe you can win a championship relying on luck and defense, and most people would say that's what you've seen out of that team the last two weeks."
Keselowski believes that's why Stewart was so brash, saying Edwards had better not sleep soundly the next three weeks.
"Defense is not a good place to be -- at all," Keselowski said. "I don't think you can win a championship playing defense."
Keselowski also doesn't hold back his opinion on what has him in the position of needing to make up eight to 10 points over the next two weeks to have a realistic chance going into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
|Dale Earnhardt was the last driver Brad Keselowski -- and others -- believe had the ear of NASCAR and his fellow drivers.|
The driver who was a factor in NASCAR turning to its "boys, have at it" attitude three years ago because of run-ins with Hamlin and others in the Nationwide Series, Keselowski says retaliation has no place in NASCAR.
Like Stewart said after being the benefactor of retaliation at Martinsville, Keselowski believes NASCAR has to step in and do something.
He just doesn't see anybody who has NASCAR's ear enough to take action. He's not sure anybody has had the governing body's ear in a way that truly helps the sport since Dale Earnhardt was killed in 2001.
Not Jeff Gordon?
"He doesn't use it, and when he has used it he's used it poorly," Keselowski said. "Most people will tell you he was the advocate of the no-bump draft rule in the fall of '09 at Talladega, and that was an absolute disaster. That race hasn't recovered since."
"Nope," Keselowski said. "The older I get the more I understand the mystique that was there with Earnhardt. As I've gotten older and looked back I've started to understand why what he did was so powerful to the sport, and there hasn't been anyone since."
Keselowski said Earnhardt broke down barriers. That when he spoke to NASCAR, he typically spoke for the needs of the garage.
"We need somebody that can get in there that promotes the interest of the sport as a whole," Keselowski said. "I could be that guy if I had that opportunity."
The odds in Vegas don't favor Keselowski winning the title that it would take to get that opportunity -- at least not this season. But if he does pull off a miracle he could be just what the sport needs, as natural in the championship role as he is in Vegas.
T-boned limousine aside, that is.
"Just one of those days," Keselowski said of the wreck. "Just one of those days."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.