Matt McLaughlin · Tuesday December 4, 2012
So what to make of this year’s Cup Series champion, Brad Keselowski? He’s 28 years of age, on the lower end of the scale as most of the star drivers in NASCAR either flirt with or have passed 40. (Let’s compare: Jeff Gordon was 24 when he won his first title in 1995 and 30 when he was last crowned in 2001. Jimmie Johnson was already 31 when he won his first of five straight titles.)
In 2012, Keselowski was running just his third full-time season on the Cup circuit. Fully five of his nine career Cup wins, more than half, occurred this year. Keselowski also won the Nationwide title back in 2010, making him the first Cup titlist to also have taken the crown in NASCAR’s second-tier series since Bobby Labonte in 2000 (Labonte’s then-Busch Series title was in 1991). Oddly enough, Keselowski and Labonte are the only two drivers to share this honor in NASCAR history. As duly noted by my bud Dr. Mark Howell, Brad is also from the Upper Midwest… Michigan. That means no native son of the South has claimed a Cup title since Labonte in 2000. Quick sidebar: I’ll admit being glad, while reading Mark’s column I could not see him doing that ridiculous “mittens” thing with his hands Michiganders do to show where they live. It makes adults look they’ve come unglued enough to be reduced to playing “how many fingers.” Also of note, in reviewing the Doc’s column it seems most often when a professional sports team breaks a long streak of futility, they do so by beating a team from Philadelphia, the true home of sports futility where the best teams on paper always seem to find a way to lose games in the final moments of the contest or the waning weeks of the season.
Keselowski is also noted as one NASCAR’s most skilled practitioners in social media. His Tweeted pictures of Juan Pablo Montoya’s unintentional weenie-roast at Daytona lit up the charts instantaneously like no public relations ploy ever has. NASCAR reveled in the amount of unintended attention those Tweets drew to the sport during a very much delayed late Monday night race, as fans at home struggled to stay awake during a long delay. Oddly enough, late in the season they fined Keselowski big time for having his phone in the car. What was that about? I guess NASCAR was seeing enough of the writing on the wall. Keselowski was a potential champion and a bit of a loose cannon. NASCAR likes to keep their champion on a tight leash. Message sent: ask James Johnson.
Here’s what I like about Brad Keselowski, though. I could give a damn about his age, who he might be dating and where he is from. (No mittens. No mittens.) What I like about Keselowski is he apparently doesn’t care if you like him. If you do like him, that’s great and he’s grateful. If you don’t… well, **** you and the horse you rode in on. Keselowski will freely admit that he carries a chip on his shoulder the size of a railroad tie. He’s been told all his life he isn’t good enough to be champion. He’s been discounted by the pundits as a journeyman driver who might luck into an occasional win but will never amount to much. When the list of “pretty boy” wheelmen who might appeal to sponsors gets printed up, Keselowski doesn’t appear in the first three pages. Penske’s wisdom in hiring Brad was even called into serious question, back when the driver’s surprise Talladega win made him an unlikely top-tier free agent in 2009. Be it genetics, upbringing or experience Keselowski just isn’t one of those drivers so innately talented he could win the Kentucky Derby on a mule. But he’s made it clear several times this year, when it comes to race craft he is one of the smartest guys in the garage (even if he’s not a contender at the Carrabus County Trivial Pursuit challenge.) And perhaps most importantly, because of that chip on his shoulder every week, every race, and every lap Keselowski is up on the wheel fighting for everything he’s worth to prove his critics wrong. NASCAR racing is more exciting because of that. So go get ‘em, champ. If they ain’t cheering, at least they’re watching you now, huh? And if they try to polish you up and take that chip off your shoulder, fight the SOBs every step of the way.
Here’s another thing to like about Keselowski. He likes beer. He drinks beer. He’s unabashed about liking beer and isn’t afraid to be shown doing so. I like beer. I like beer a lot. I consider it Christmas in a can and every day is Christmas here at Eyesore Acres. In the days of yore men, real men, celebrated a notable achievement like a race win. They didn’t drink soda pop to garner sponsor checks. (Note: there’s nothing worse for a dehydrated and exhausted athlete than sugary soda pop. There’s a reason drivers only have a sip of their cola before spraying it all over. If they were to drink the entire thing, they’d vomit all over Dr. Jerry Punch and I think we can all agree we don’t need to see that.) In days of yore, men also used beer to celebrate lesser achievements, like finishing a race with both arms and legs still fully attached and their brain stem plugged solidly into place.
As best I can recall, Keselowski is the first driver sponsored by a beer company since Bill Elliott did so with Coors in 1988. Wow, that’s a lot of beers… um, years ago. I dunno. I just liked the sport better back when a lot of the sponsors were beer companies or car parts companies like Cam 2, Havoline, Valvoline, STP, etc. Lately, all the championships have gone to home improvement companies and they make me nervous. How many NASCAR fans trying to watch a race are being nagged by their spouse, “Shouldn’t you be painting the fence, building the shed, tending to the garden, or power washing the lawn mower, not watching the race?” Nags make poor sponsors.
One word of caution to Keselowski: “Enjoy responsibly.” If there’s a certain kiss of death for the career of any Cup driver, it’s a DUI arrest and that goes thrice, no perhaps ten times for a driver who is sponsored by a brewer. Fast cars and alcohol are an awkward mix. There’s no joking about the carnage that occurs on our roadways annually, thanks to drivers who have over imbibed. Beer companies are trying to send a message: “Enjoy our fine product, but enjoy it such a manner you don’t become a hazard to you or anyone else.” Rusty Wallace was a master of this one, pointing out while he was having quite a few beers to celebrate a win someone else was driving him to the airport and flying him home. Fans (and perhaps even younger drivers) should recall the tragic story of Robby Moroso. A talented and likeable young man, Moroso was trying to break into the big leagues of racing, the Cup Series. He won he 1989 Busch Series title and was posthumously awarded the Cup Rookie of The Year award in 1990 despite some struggles.
To dull the pain of a poor run, one fateful fall night he stopped at a bar and had a couple too many. To compound that mistake, he decided to drive home. This story, like too many others, doesn’t have a happy ending. Not only was Moroso killed in a traffic accident along that ride home, so was the young mother he hit head-on in that wreck. You never met Tammy Williams. Rob Moroso took care of that September 30th, 1990.
Other things make me doubt how wise Keselowski is after all. OK, you’re 28, single, and already own your own home. You’ve just become Cup champion, which comes with a big check in addition to that big trophy. You are suddenly wealthy, most likely wealthier than you ever thought you might be. So what’s on the top of the wish, your Christmas gift to you? I dunno. Let’s see. Well, I am suddenly an employee of the Ford Motor Company, job title “Reigning Nextel Cup Champion.” That ought to be good for a nice employee discount on one of those new black on black Boss 302s or even a Shelby Super-Snake GT500. (Mr. Kes… if a larger purchase keeps either of these cars out of the garage, you can store them here where I take excellent care of all my Precious and Needful Things.) What’s one of those new, 70-inch plasma TV sets go for? Are there any Steve McQueen edition Triumphs left? A new Polaris? How but a new side-by-side Purdy shotgun, a field trained champion setter and a week hunting quail or pheasant at a reserve so exclusive even the maids are looking down at you and snickering behind your back because of your lack of English accent (Even if they dig your dog)? Well, Keselowski has other plans. He wants a tank. Not a nice, saltwater fish tank with exotic specimens. Not a scuba diving tank with an eye towards a whale-watching tour in Hawaii. A tank tank. Like the one Patton used to cruise around in on his way to Germany. One of those big, stupid hulking tracked things that’s slower than a K-car and sturdier than Rush Limbaugh’s ego. What the hell do you do with a tank, other than turf your neighbor’s lawn down to the frost line and remove beehives from the pine tree with purloined ordinance the ATF is really going to be pissed off you found. A tank? No, seriously? Worse yet, Keselowski has convinced his next door neighbor, Dale Earnhardt Jr. that tank ownership is an option worth pursuing. I’m guessing that “For Sale” signs are popping up like dandelions on a spring lawn in that area right now. (Psst.. guys. C’mere. Got a tip for you. December 8th, Auburn, Indiana. National Military History Center, 5634 County Road. Auction of 83 lots. 1-877-906-2437. www.auctionsamerica.com. You ought to be able to find a suitable instrument of destruction here if you can find a free afternoon. Remember, Kes, I got the space to store that Boss 302 for the heads up.)
Wow, whoops. Can you say, “awkward?” Keselowski won the championship at the wheel of a Dodge, the first driver to do so since Richard Petty in 1975. In 1975, I was a high school sophomore with a newly minted driver’s license from the state of Pennsylvania. Gerald Ford was in the White House, awaiting a trouncing the following year, the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” edged out Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” for song of the year and Jaws frightened the bejezus out of shore bound movie goers. (Chrysler trimmers were still scouring the back alleys of Corinth to find enough leather to assemble Cordobas.) So let’s throw a party; Chrysler is buying, right? Not so fast, grasshopper. Dodge is out of the sport, effective next year, after Penske awkwardly announced their move to Ford early this season. To be frank, Dodge won’t be at the dance next year because nobody invited them. My guess is Richard Petty is scratching his chin, second-guessing himself right now…
I’ll tell you what surprises me. In researching this article I found out something surprising. No, Dodge didn’t win the manufacturer’s award this year. That honor went to Chevy just as it has every year since 2002. The last time Mopar won the award was 1975, when Petty dominated the season. The only other times Mopar won the manufacturer’s title were 1970 (Bobby Isaac in a Dodge Daytona), 1966-67 (The unstoppable force that was Richard Petty), and 1955-56 (Keikhaefer’s Chryslers). Despite the fact Petty dominated the sport in the ’60s and ’70s, a supremacy in numbers usually handed the title to Ford or a GM division. Here’s another surprise: in 1985, the title was actually declared a tie between Ford and Chevy.
Well, something good has to come out of Dodge being the mount of the Cup champion, right? Given the old adage, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” Dodge has decided to introduce a new, limited edition Dodge Charger “Daytona” model. Yes, it’s a (gag) four door like the other Chargers. It’s painted a blinding blue color that hasn’t come off the palette since Peter Max checked out. (I presume he’s dead… if not, my apologies). Add in white stripes, I guess as a tribute to the No. 2, but twin skunk stripes are, um, a Chevy trademark. Billboard stripes would have been more appropriate. No, this new version doesn’t even have the vestiges of a tall tail fin or pointed nose, just like the original 1969 Daytona Mopar used to homologate one of the most outrageous and desirable NASCAR mounts ever. As a muscle car purist, it pains me to see the “Daytona” name whored in this manner — never mind those ’80s shovel snout front wheel drive abominations that carried the name plate. At last count, 3,498 “Daytonas” remained unsold, so get yours now.
Yeah, I still love Superbirds and Daytonas. Sue me. I was once loudly castigated and ridiculed by a former co-writer for my fascination with those polarizing muscle cars and it still pisses me off. As I see it, you’ve got two sorts of NASCAR writers, those who cherish the mounts of old and those who just can’t find anything more productive to do with their time. Us purists will be able to rattle off what color and options we’d have had on the Superbird or Daytona we’d have bought earlier this week if we hit the Powerball. The fact it would be a Hemi four speed goes without saying. For the record, mine would be a Daytona, black with a red fin. Second choice, Petty (Corporate blue) Superbird. Umm, Brad did I mention the lack of shopping days until Christmas? A tank, huh? Interesting idea.
And what of Roger Penske’s team finally winning a Cup title after all these years? First off, let me note with no hostility intended towards anyone, it’s nice to see any team not affiliated with Rick Hendrick finally win a title for the first time since 2004 or 2005 depending on how you interpret the word “associated.” Fans of Rusty Wallace, whose salad days were driving for Penske, will recall how achingly close the driver came to winning a championship for the organization — particularly in ‘93. But Wallace was usually stuck playing Salieri to Dale Earnhardt’s Mozart, 18 wins in a two-year period still not enough to dethrone him in either season (though it seems to be the way Bill Elliott beat Wallace in 1988 that still sticks in his craw.) Penske has had a rather tortured path in NASCAR, himself starting with a grotesque brace of AMC Matadors back in 1972. Wallace first drove for Penske in his first Cup start back at Atlanta in 1980, finishing second at the wheel of a Penske-prepared Chevy Caprice. Despite that early success, Wallace and the Captain didn’t join forces full-time until 1991. At one point, Penske was the big arrow in Pontiac’s quiver but he defected to Ford in 1994 and later Dodge in 2003. So along the way, Penske has competed for all of the traditional “Big Four” automakers over a period so long we’re down to the Big 3. About the only thing consistent with the team over the last decade is sponsorship with Miller Brewing, so it would be nice to see an occasional “retro” black paint scheme on the No. 2 car as part of the title celebration in ’13. It might not have been as pretty as the black and silver No. 3 or the black, yellow and red No. 28 but the “classic” Miller scheme was a hell of a lot prettier than the current blue and white scheme we have now.
So how will the move back to Ford affect Keselowski and Penske? Well, the Las Vegas (wasn’t there just something NASCAR-related going on in Vegas this week?) oddsmakers have spoken and they don’t think much of the idea. They’ve assigned Keselowski almost insultingly low numbers to repeat as champion in 2013 despite the bloom still being on the rose. And who are the Vegas “experts” placing their bets on? None other than five-time Cup titlist Johnson. While it’s hard to bet the rent check against Johnson, given his unparalleled success, I’d hedge my bets. That’s the thing about statistics and expectations. Back in 2001, it seemed like Jeff Gordon would never lose a title again. Has it really been 11 years? And there was an era it was a major shock if Penske didn’t win the Indy 500, much less the pole for the event. Then, in a single year all three Penske cars failed to even qualify for the Memorial Day Classic. (1995). Yes, this is family-oriented website, but since the line was popularized in the movie Forrest Gump, “Shit happens.” Sooner or later, one of these cheating penalties against the No. 48 is going to stick and the Karmic payback for that horrible, rainbow-colored fright wig at Dover can’t be limited to a failed rear differential at Homestead.
Part II of Matt’s season-ending column will come tomorrow.
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