- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- We all knew Brad Keselowski would be a different kind of champion, but this was a lollapalooza for all of NASCAR's 65 years: a new Cup winner on truth serum on live national television.
And it was an instant classic on ESPN.
"I got a buzz going -- I been drinking for a little bit," Keselowski said, hoisting a huge glass of his sponsor's product, Miller Lite, to begin a "SportsCenter" interview about an hour after the race ended.
Each time he was asked a question, he would take another chug while listening.
"This has been one helluva day; I got one helluva team; and it doesn't get any better than this."
He'd come to Homestead-Miami Speedway leading Jimmie Johnson by 20 points, so Sunday's season finale promised little in the way of last year's drama here, when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards wound up tied in points but Stewart won on the tiebreaker of most wins.
All week, attention had focused on Keselowski's team owner, Roger Penske, who has won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 12 Indy car championships, but had never won a Cup title -- this, after competing in NASCAR off and on since 1972, and 23 seasons full time competing for the championship.
Penske finally was a shoo-in for his first Cup, most figured.
But with 61 laps left Sunday, the drama soared. Keselowski ran out of gas and fell to 24th, a lap down, with Johnson leading the race. But 10 laps later the drama seesawed: Johnson left his pits with a lug nut missing, drew a drive-through penalty and fell to 25th.
Then moments later, Johnson pitted again with burned-up gear, and "I knew it was going to be fatal," Johnson said, to his hopes of winning a sixth championship in seven years.
With Johnson's car sitting in the garage, Keselowski clinched the title with 21 laps left, and was able to ease off the throttle and finish 15th, and still finish 39 points ahead of Clint Bowyer, who knocked Johnson back to third by a point.
Jeff Gordon won the race, giving teammate Johnson reason to believe he would have won the Ford EcoBoost 400 if not for the malfunction.
"We were ahead of the 24 [when Johnson's troubles started], and the 24 won the race," Johnson reasoned.
Keselowski, 28, won his first Cup on his 125th race start, the fewest for a driver since Gordon won the 1995 championship on his 93rd start.
"To me, it's like bringing a Super Bowl [victory] home to Detroit, with this young man from Michigan," said Penske, whose business enterprises are headquartered in the Detroit area.
On live TV in the instant classic interview, Keselowski talked as if he were already well into the team's late-night victory party.
"There's gonna be adversity in a season," he said. "That's how racing works, man. There's always gonna be that pit stop that doesn't go your way or that flat tire. Or you name it. But my team, they never give up, they don't surrender, and like Winston Churchill, we never, ever, EVER give up."
He summarized his life and his career in tavern-speak:
"I ain't a big guy," said the 155-pounder. "I'm not the strongest guy. I'm not gonna bench-press above everybody else, or do any of those things. There's been moments when I haven't been the fastest guy. Haven't been the smoothest guy.
"But you know what? I've heard that all my life and I've fought through it and it's given me the fuel and the fire to work harder, work smarter, and find a way to win."
He's from a hard-knocks, bootstraps racing family, and his father, Bob, a longtime ARCA driver, was at Homestead.
Asked what they'd said to each other, Brad K grinned, pondered only a moment and said he'd said, "'We did it!'"
He turned to a cheering throng in the background and yelled, "Pretty simple, right guys? We did it!"
The roar increased and Keselowski urged them on: "Make noise! You're on 'SportsCenter!'"
Later, in the team's more in-depth interview, I asked Penske if, in his 40 years of major racing, he'd ever had a driver give a sponsor as much bang for the buck as Keselowski just had.
Penske deadpanned: "I saw him as a great driver, a good tactician. I didn't realize he was commercially viable."
Keselowski was late for that later interview, and came in toting a magnum champagne bottle -- which was empty, of course. But "Paul's wearing most of it," Keselowski said of the champagne as he sat down between crew chief Paul Wolfe and Penske.
From there, there was more tavern talk -- but interspersed with moments of serious lucidity.
"I can't believe how everything just came together over the last -- what's it been? -- three years?" Keselowski said, draping his arms around Wolfe on the one side and Penske on the other, as if they were three guys on bar stools.
"We're two-for-three, Paul, I just realized that," Keselowski said. In three years together, they've won the Nationwide championship in 2010, made the Chase last year and won the whole thing this time. "That's pretty good.
"And you know what?" and here came the clear, serious reasoning: "I feel like the best is yet to come. I really do."
The "Blue Deuce" team pulled this off virtually all alone. They had the only Dodge in the Chase. And at this season's outset Keselowski had lost his teammate, AJ Allmendinger, to NASCAR suspension for a substance-abuse-policy violation in the summer.
So there was no one around except replacement driver Sam Hornish Jr., who wasn't in the Chase, to help Keselowski's team either on the track or in development.
Truly they were flying solo, against the enormous experience not only of Johnson but of the whole Hendrick Motorsports empire, which put all four of its Chevrolets in the Chase this year.
Then, arms wrapped again around Penske and Wolfe, the tavern talk returned, and yet it was the very essence of what Keselowski surely felt:
"I just feel so FORTUNATE [tavern emphasis] to be where I'm AT right now, in LIFE, and with RACING, to have guys like this around me. I'm surrounded by the best."
All those years of struggling for a championship at this level without success "is just something you have to work on," Penske said. "And these guys are the best."
They had to be, to beat the best, Johnson and the Hendrick armada.
For 2013, the Penske operation switches to Ford, where there'll be a lot more help in research and development.
There may well be more to come from them.
What is certain: Brad Keselowski is a whole new kind of champion.