HOMESTEAD, Fla. – They put Brad Keselowski, the freshly-minted Sprint Cup champion, live on SportsCenter Sunday evening, and to commemorate the moment he brought along a ridiculously oversized, maybe 128-ounce glass of Miller Lite, one of his sponsors.
Throughout the nearly five-minute interview he took gulp after big gulp from the glass, right on camera for everyone at home to see. They were the kind of gulps that went beyond the proverbial sponsor plug. He looked exactly like a man who just needed a beer. Not surprisingly, the dehydrated, 155-pound Keselowski was quickly showing the effects.
How you feeling, he was asked.
"Pretty damn awesome," Keselowski shouted into his handheld microphone. "I've got a little buzz going. I've been drinking for a little bit. It's been one hell of a day."
And then he just beamed a toothy, boyish, All-American grin, part joy, part mischief, part earned satisfaction.
"I did have a big cup," he later joked.
For NASCAR, this was some kind of dream marketing moment come true. After delivering Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, holding off Jimmie Johnson to win his first title by a comfortable 39-point margin, the 28-year-old out of suburban Detroit was charming a nation in a fashion that a sport desperate for some new excitement in an old-school package couldn't have drawn up any better.
"He's entertaining," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said with a laugh. "You never know what you're going to get with Brad."
You don't, unless you can predict what the combination of care-free yet intense, light-hearted yet hard-driving will produce when run through the heated, emotional roller coaster this sport thrives on.
[Related: Johnson's title hopes go up in smoke]
There really was only one predictable thing about the post-race scene: Brad Keselowski wasn't going to win a title quietly.
"Make some noise," he shouted to the crowd behind him. "You're on SportsCenter."
Later he was asked what being a champion might entail.
"I always wanted to date a celebrity, just throwing that out there," he said with a laugh. "That would be pretty cool, don't you think?"
Anyone in particular?
"Not a Kardashian," he said.
Sunday was a transitional day for NASCAR, one that it hopes is looked back on as the start of the Keselowski era (or at least the generation he represents), not the time when a slew of critical sponsors bailed on auto racing.
Dodge is gone. Office Depot is gone. AFLAC and UPS are gone, corporate money walking away from this once white-hot sport. To say there were unsettled stomachs and thousand-yard stares from some team owners here at the Sprint Cup finale doesn't begin to describe it. It's a winter of uncertainty ahead.
NASCAR's popularity has stalled and now it's hitting where it hurts, the bottom line. Attendance remains stagnant, at best. TV ratings are mostly down, so the people not showing up at the track aren't even watching at home. Only a new Fox deal – eight years at $2.4 billion, a 36-percent increase over the last contract – shines as a silver lining amid the storm.
The sport needs a shot in the arm and Keselowski is exactly that. After years of being called too corporate, too boring, too programmed, too marketed, NASCAR has a champion slamming beer on live TV and laughing about it.
He isn't the first to try it. It's just few have done it as authentically.
"A guy like Brad Keselowski is kind of a throwback driver, he's enjoying the moment," said Kerry Tharp, NASCAR's director of communications, delighted at the star-is-born moment of it all.
Keselowski is a perfect package because he comes across as honest. "Expect the unexpected," he said in explaining what he'll bring as the new face of the sport. There's no need to describe who he is. He wears it on his sleeve for all to see. He's approachable in ways that past champions Johnson and Gordon and even Tony Stewart struggled with.
And yet he's not just some goofball kid. He spent the week leading up to Sunday's finale slapping aside every head game and trash talk the veteran, five-time champion Johnson tried to use on him.
"There was not a moment before the race I was stressed out," he insisted Sunday night after finishing 15th, a result plenty good enough with Johnson parked in the garage with a mechanical issue.
[Related: Slideshow: Keselowski wins title]
It was only two weeks ago Keselowski was getting ripped by fellow drivers for aggressive racing. Last week he delivered an impassioned and profanity-filled rant about other racers, including Gordon, wrecking each other on purpose as their crews fought. It went viral.
Now came the lighter side, the likable side, the side of the guy who has twice tweeted pictures from his car during races. (He's approaching 350,000 followers). We're now seeing a driver who is confident enough to stand up for himself, who came up from the bootstraps in the sport, a family-funded push from youth racing to trucks to the Nationwide Series to a Sprint Cup championship.
He isn't just a driver; he knows how to work on the cars, how to strategize, how to do it all.
"Brad eats, drinks and sleeps being a race car driver," said team owner Rick Hendrick, who once employed Keselowski.
He's hysterical. He's talented. He's the champion.
And he's arriving just in time.
The sport is embarking on its "Industry Action Plan" next season, a five-year recalibration of everything NASCAR in an effort to reignite passion among not just its core fan base, but hopefully younger and more diverse groups, too.
It's a concept based not on trying to transform NASCAR into what others may want, but in concentrating on what it does best and then hoping a marketing push will draw fans in who may not realize this is a sport they are waiting to fall for.
The plan includes a bit of everything, from further fan outreach, to more social media, to a return of in-house digital rights, to better real estate on cars for sponsors and manufacturers.
There will even be a new look car next season based on an old-school concept. (It is designed to look more like a showroom model in an effort to connect fans to the sport.) "Putting the 'stock' back in stock car," NASCAR says.
Everything is about NASCAR being NASCAR and trusting that if presented properly to the public, especially younger people, that it is a product that can still work.
Keselowski might as well serve as the front man.
"I think he's going to open some doors to some fans to follow," Tharp said.
That's NASCAR's hope to go along with NASCAR's plan. First win the title, then win the sport a future worth drinking to.
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