Sure, a fair amount of those already disliked Busch – who may be the most polarizing figure in NASCAR – before the incident, but that was nothing compared to the showering of negativity thrown his way at driver intros. It’s just the latest in a long line for Keselowski support, matching the treatment Carl Edwards received when he handed out both rounds of his vigilante justice towards his rival at Gateway this July.
If Keselowski was a universally respected driver – say, Mark Martin – the overwhelming reaction in his favor would be understandable and expected. (Of course, given the way that Martin races, he wouldn’t be in that situation… but that’s beside the point.) Instead, before being on the receiving end of three spectacular incidents in 2010, Keselowski had established a reputation for being, well, somewhat of a knucklehead.
As we know, many – from Edwards to Denny Hamlin to even his teammate Kurt Busch at Talladega last fall – have expressed displeasure with the way that Keselowski races. And whether or not those criticisms are valid, they immediately became the public face of Keselowski’s driving career. He was perceived as reckless.
Usually, that perception means a heel-turn for a driver, whether he likes it or not, leaving fans and rivals to put the bullseye squarely on his back. We’ve got a small sample size of Keselowski’s NASCAR career, and so far, there hasn’t been anything to disprove that assessment.
At the same time, that small sample size – and a lack of immediate Sprint Cup success – may be playing in Keselowski’s favor. Heck, Kyle Busch has probably sold more Doublemint merchandise from his two races with the Wrigley’s sponsorship in 2010 than Keselowski has sold all season. And Busch is a pretty big heel himself.
Yet while hated, Keselowski hasn’t racked up the same amount of vitriol that Busch has. Imagine if Keselowski had called Jeff Burton an ass over the PA at Bristol Saturday night? He’d become public enemy number one by a wide margin. But when one heel goes after another, odds are fans are going to side with the one who’s the least successful.
That doesn’t explain the reaction to his scuffles with Edwards, though, a driver who’s become one of the polished faces of NASCAR. Wouldn’t it seem that people would go wild for an unpopular guy getting what’s his?
The difference there is, Edwards’s punishments didn’t fit the crimes. While Keselowski’s garnered that reputation of being a rough driver, save for the Talladega mess (an incident easily attributable to the hazards of restrictor-plate racing) and his run-in with Hamlin in the Nationwide Series at Phoenix, Keselowski hasn’t had a SportsCenter rough driving moment. Sure, the incident that precipitated his dumping at Bristol will be replayed ad nauseum until the end of the year, but to the untrained eye, it looks like one of ‘dem racin’ deals.
So for better or worse, Keselowski shows no sign of shaking his rep as an aggressive driver, at least from Busch, Edwards and Hamlin’s point of views. But it doesn’t seem to be hurting him, either.