Commentary

Brad Keselowski is Bristol royalty

Updated: March 18, 2012, 8:37 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- There's a new king at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Unfortunately, the number of people here on Sunday wasn't nearly what one would expect for a coronation at a track that once was the toughest ticket in NASCAR.

The stands barely were half full when Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag for the second straight race at "The Last Great Colosseum," as the sign outside the Turn 3 entrance advertised.

Many will say that is the fans sending a message, that they liked the racing at this half-mile Mecca better before it was reconfigured in 2007. Seventy-four percent of you agreed with that in an informal poll on ESPN.com's live race chat.

It's a shame. There was good racing, sometimes great racing, most of the day. Much of it was side by side between Keselowski and runner-up Matt Kenseth. Were it not for a late caution, the one Keselowski calls the best long-run driver in the sport might have made this a spectacular finish.

[+] EnlargeBrad Keselowski
John Harrelson/Getty Images/NASCARBrad Keselowski led a career-high 232 laps Sunday on his way to Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"I don't see all the hate for new Bristol versus old Bristol," Keselowski said after leading a career-best 232 laps. "I'm biased, I know. But to me this was one of the best Bristol races I've ever seen.

"We ran side by side for the lead for 20 laps. There was some good beating and banging, some wrecking. … Short of a 30-car wreck every damn week, I don' t know what to ask for."

Don't get me wrong. I liked that you had to move people out of the way to pass at the old Bristol. I liked that this place made blood pressures run higher than oil temperatures, that the beating and banging often led to fights and name calling.

The sport needs that every now and then.

But to say this race was boring is wrong. Keselowski easily could have been taken out on Lap 25 when he got into the back of Regan Smith, who got into the back of Kasey Kahne to trigger a wreck that all but ended the day for Kyle Busch, Kahne, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.

It wasn't boring when Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon enough to blow Gordon's left rear tire and cause him to wreck.

And it wasn't boring when Kenseth stalked Keselowski for countless laps trying to pass him.

"This place got a bad label for some reason that it really didn't deserve," Keselowski said. "From what I've seen the last couple of years, it's been a great race to me. To me, it's better than it's ever been."

Keselowski is helping make the sport better than it's ever been. His pictures on Twitter during the two-hour Daytona 500 red-flag stoppage for Juan Pablo Montoya hitting a jet dryer were show-stopping, and helped him pick up 150,000 new followers.

On Sunday, he became the first driver to tweet a picture from inside his car in Victory Lane.

Had the stands been full with 160,000-plus we might still be waiting on that picture to post. As it was, it took almost a half hour.

"I'd like to see that process get faster," said Keselowski, explaining that with more than 60,000 fans in a rural area it's not easy getting the phone signal out.

Keselowski also is making the sport better with his performance. People who thought his first win at Talladega Superspeedway in a part-time ride for Phoenix Racing was a fluke because he sent Carl Edwards airborne are wrong.

People who think his August win at Bristol was a fluke because he took advantage of the timing lines with his pit stall selection to gain an advantage are wrong.

[+] EnlargeKeselowski
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesNot only is Brad Keselowski the king of Bristol, he is the king of Twitter in the NASCAR universe -- taking this photo from Victory Lane.

He is for real, having won on short tracks, superspeedways and intermediate tracks. The only thing missing from his resume is a road course win.

Oh, and a Sprint Cup championship.

"He's a helluva talent, a great kid," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who gave Keselowski his first big break with a ride in his Nationwide Series car in 2007. "Born to be a racer, man."

And Earnhardt basically agrees with Keselowski on the racing at Bristol. While he believes it could be better with some help from Goodyear making a tire that wears faster, he's not among those who believe the old configuration was significantly better.

He believes the tire has more to do with the product than the configuration, reminding that the first race on the new surface in 2007 with a softer tire was one of the best ever.

He's right, by the way.

"I remember being in the middle of that and we were running three-wide for the lead," said Earnhardt, who on Sunday turned a top-5 finish into a 15th with a late pit-road speeding penalty. "It's possible to have an awesome race here. Goodyear could come in here and pull some trickery with the tires."

Keselowski isn't so sure it's the racing that kept fans away on Sunday as much as the times. One of the most insightful athletes in any sport you'll meet, he makes valid points.

"Everybody wants to label it a problem," Keselowski said of the reconfiguration. "You look at the whole TV package, and just the attitudes and trends of the fan base has changed. There's so much access provided through social media, through the TV networks … that the best racing action in the world might not matter.

"There's probably some ways to make it better. There always is. At some point, you have to accept the fact that the world has changed a lot. Live spectator events, it's tough to sell tickets to."

But if you want somebody to sell a race, Keselowski is your guy. He called his Babe Ruth shot for Sunday, tweeting on Saturday that this was the best car he'd ever driven. He is cementing himself as one of the sport's brightest stars, and becoming a two-time winner at Bristol will fast-forward that progress.

Pretty good for a driver who wasn't all that good on short tracks growing up in Late Models in the Michigan area.

"Growing up, I got my ass kicked in the Late Models," Keselowski said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I got it kicked pretty hard."

Now he's kicking butt pretty hard, joining Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and other multiple winners at Bristol.

"The best drivers here go on and win championships," said Keselowski, who moved up eight spots to 13th in points.

And being the king of NASCAR, not Bristol, is Keselowski's ultimate goal.

"To win championships, you have to be able to overcome adversity," Keselowski said. "It's very much a defining racetrack in that sense."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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