Keselowski a breath of fresh air
CHICAGO -- Beer was flowing freely in the 16th-floor lounge of the MillerCoors headquarters -- as it usually does in the late afternoon -- when the guest of honor was asked whether Danica Patrick would do well when she moves full time to NASCAR in 2012.
"NO!" Penske Racing drive Brad Keselowski said bluntly.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR's chief marketing officer, dropped his head and covered his eyes.
Yes, Keselowski was at it again, taking a shot at the female driver Phelps and the rest of the governing body hope will expand the sport's marketing borders and popularity with her GoDaddy.com machine behind her.
Phelps shouldn't be surprised. Keselowski took a similar jab at Patrick in late August when he wrote on Twitter that she "opened a Pandora's box for all female racers" if she doesn't succeed because she advanced her career by posing half naked in magazines.
But as much as Phelps might have wanted to put a gag in Keselowski's mouth, he appreciated the driver's honesty and wishes more in the Sprint Cup Series could speak so freely and show their personality.
"Listen, Brad is entitled to his opinion," Phelps said during the MillerCoors event to kick off the Chase. "He's not going to sugarcoat it. I love that about him. Do I think Danica will come in here and run well? I do. But I wouldn't want him to change one iota what he's saying.
"That's what we want, and that's what these guys want him to be."
"These guys" are the leaders of the Miller Lite brand that sponsors Keselowski's No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge that is third in points heading into Sunday's Chase race at Dover (2 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN). One of the first things that attracted them to the 27-year-old driver, beyond his potential behind the wheel, was his personality.
They encourage him to be himself with no boundaries outside of following their "Drink responsibly" guidelines and not breaking the law.
"You don't think they would be OK if I got [arrested] in a bar fight?" Keselowski said with a big smile. "A bar fight actually would be pretty cool. They might dig that."
The point is, Keselowski is able to be edgier than many drivers today because he has a sponsor that allows him to be. Some have to be more careful with what they say and even what they do on the track, knowing that, if they cross the line on Sunday, they might get a call from their sponsor on Monday.
Kyle Busch, for example, understands he can get away with a little more reckless behavior when NOS Energy Drink is on his car than when M&M's or one of the other Mars products is there.
"There's certainly some sponsors out there that may tell you to back it up a notch," Busch admitted.
People want to call five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson vanilla, but that no-controversy image was drilled into him when he first entered the sport with Lowe's as his sponsor.
"With their corporate image and marketing platform, they choose certain drivers in most cases because they fit the company mold," Johnson said. "If you get too far from that yeah, there's pressure there.
"There's no doubt if you have a beer or liquor sponsor on your car, you can do a little more than a guy with a candy sponsor on their car."
Imagine if it weren't that way. Imagine if drivers could be as "boys, have at it" off the track as they are on it. Imagine if, say, Johnson really told us what he thinks about Kurt Busch and their feud.
You might have more drivers like Keselowski, whose platform has become bigger and more credible with what he has done on the track, finishing fifth and second in his first two Chase races to trail leader Tony Stewart by only 11 points.
"Yeah, you have too many yuppie sponsors," said Keselowski, whose average finish the past nine races is an amazing 4.5. "It takes away from the sport. You have to wonder the kind of person Jimmie would be if he had Bud or Miller [as a sponsor]."
NASCAR would like more drivers to have the freedom Keselowski does. Phelps admits that he and others have encouraged sponsors to lighten up.
"If we could get even 20 percent better where that filter is off, it would be beneficial," Phelps said.
Keselowski is as unfiltered as NASCAR has seen in a while. He says what he thinks, although it typically comes with a great depth of insight and perspective. He's a refreshing newcomer to the Chase, which has seen most of the same characters for the past eight years.
"[Keselowski's] a lively personality, a person who is not afraid to take on controversial subjects but does so in a very intelligent manner," said Jackie Woodward, the vice president of marketing and media services at MillerCoors. "He's very articulate about how he engages, and that's what Miller is all about."
That's what NASCAR wants.
That's what NASCAR needs.
Keselowski doesn't mind being that. He shows no more fear giving his opinion than he does making a bold move on the track. Earlier this year, when rival Carl Edwards said he did nothing wrong passing Joey Logano on the last lap of the Nationwide race at Dover, Keselowski wrote on Twitter that Edwards intentionally manipulated the air and caused Logano to wreck.
He then criticized traditional NASCAR media for not telling what "really" happened, pledging to use Twitter to tell the truth.
"Brad has personality," Phelps said. "Fans want to see that personality come out. They want [drivers] to be themselves, unique and not cookie-cutter. And he's not. He's Brad. He doesn't try to be anybody but himself. I think fans gravitate to that."
Keselowski might never have gotten the opportunity to speak so freely had he stayed under the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella when he was looking to make the full-time move from Nationwide to Cup three years ago.
"If I stayed around with Rick [Hendrick] and did that deal, they probably still would have the Kellogg's deal," Keselowski said. "Everybody knows Kellogg's was not going to stay around with a guy [Mark Martin] that doesn't eat their cereal.
"And certainly, you have to be a little tamer knowing you're marketing to kids."
Marketing is a big reason Kyle Busch left HMS after the 2007 season. His on-the-track behavior was becoming such a detriment to the sponsors that what he could do with a car became inconsequential.
You can't totally blame the sponsors. They pay millions of dollars for a driver to push their product, but the control has, to a degree, taken the sport away from what made it so popular in the 1980s and '90s.
Yeah, you have too many yuppie sponsors. It takes away from the sport. You have to wonder the kind of person Jimmie [Johnson] would be if he had Bud or Miller [as a sponsor].” -- Brad Keselowski
"Listen, these guys are representing brands unlike any other sport," Phelps said. "That connection between product and driver is unique and fantastic. There are brands that are certainly more conservative.
"What we would tell those brands is, 'Listen, fans want to see your driver be himself.' If we could take out just one filter and convince sponsors that is the right way to do it, and I think we can, it'll be better for the sport, better for the drivers and clearly better for the fans."
Keselowski and his relationship with Miller Lite might be the extreme. Not all sponsors, because of the demographics they represent, can afford to have drivers uncensored.
Keselowski is so uncensored he even makes his boss blush from time to time.
"Some of the things he says is tongue in cheek now," Roger Penske said. "People could write a book about it. Overall, he's doing a great job. He shouldn't change anything as far as I'm concerned."
Don't worry, Keselowski doesn't plan to change, understanding that some of what he says -- i.e., the Patrick comments -- doesn't always sit well.
"Well, the thing about that -- and Steve would agree -- it's important to take the good with the bad, but the greater whole outweighs the bad," Keselowski said. "You can't try and hide the bad without losing your authenticity when you talk about the good.
"I am very fortunate to have what I consider is a real sponsor to the sport."
The sport is fortunate to have a driver willing to show his real side the way Keselowski does.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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