Keselowski inflames other drivers — good for NASCAR

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.44.52 PM

No sport is more conducive to feuding than stock-car racing.  With drivers competing in cars traveling 200 mph, the most gentle of nudges can send someone spinning and careening into a wall, with death a very real possibility.

So most of NASCAR’s drivers prefer to play it as safe as they can, which is hardly very safe.  They patiently wait for an opportunity to pass when a lane is open.  They’re not out there to thread a needle.

But Brad Keselowski is different.  It doesn’t take much of an opening for him to push the nose of his car into it.   If an accident occurs, well, that’s just a racin’ deal.  Accidents happen, but aggressive drivers are usually the ones who win.

Keselowski, 30, is scrawny and so babyfaced he looks like a teenager, and several of his competitors think he’s no more mature than a teenager.  They don’t think he should have a driver’s license.  He constantly stirs animosity. 

He’s been involved in two post-race brawls in the past month as he seeks his second Sprint Cup championship in three years.

At Charlotte, he and Matt Kenseth dueled in tight quarters in the final two laps, and when it ended with a cool-down lap, tempers remained hot.  Demolition Derby broke out.  Keselowski rammed the cars of Kenseth and his teammate Denny Hamlin and (perhaps inadvertently) Tony Stewart, who responded by backing his vehicle into Keselowski’s.

Hamlin caught up to Keselowski in the garage and had to be restrained from confronting him.  But there was no restraining Kenseth, who put Keselowski in a headlock.

NASCAR responded by fining Keselowski $50,000 and Stewart $25,000, thinking that would deter the extracurricular activities.

Fat chance.

Last weekend at the Texas Motor Speedway, all hell broke loose again.  And of course, Keselowski was in the midst of it.  In a battle for the lead – and a chance to secure a berth in the Sprint Cup’s final four, Keselowski bumped Jeff Gordon and cut his left rear tire, sending him reeling to a 29th-place finish.

Keselowski finessed the collision so perfectly that he was able to recover for third place and stay in contention for the championship to be finalized Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson won Sunday’s Texas 500, which didn’t matter a whole lot since, by the peculiar new rules of the Sprint Cup, he’s already been eliminated from contention.  Even so, he celebrated by firing a couple of six-shooters into the air.  Hey, it’s Texas.

The real fireworks came after Gordon and Keselowski brought their cars to rest on pit road.  Gordon exited his and reached into Keselowski’s to grab his firesuit.  A  brawl developed, with members of both teams involved.  Keselowski ended up with a cut on his face and a puffy lip.

In a nationally televised interview, four-time champion Gordon called Keselowski “a dipshit,” adding, “You can’t have a conversation with him.  He gets himself in this position, and he has to pay the consequences.”

Keselowski is unafraid of the consequences.  “Will those guys race me harder than others?  Absolutely, I’m certain they will.”

After he won the Sprint Cup championship in 2012 he tried to act like a champion, toning down his rhetoric and his aggressiveness.  He vowed to be what corporate America wants him to be, a calm voice for the sponsors.

But as he noted, “That didn’t work so well for me.”  In fact, his victory total dropped from six to one.  “I tried to be exactly what they all wanted me to be,” he said.  “What they want me to be is  a loser. . . . I’m here to win.  That means I’m going to have to drive my car harder, stronger, faster than everybody out there.”

Keselowski’s idols are Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt (“The Intimidator”).   They were multiple champions and among the most aggressive drivers in the world, and not so coincidentally, they died on the track. 

“If there’s a gap, I have to take it,” Keselowski said after the Texas race.  “If it requires a tiny bit of rubbing, that’s OK. . . . There was a gap.  It closed up.  By the time it closed up I was committed, and I stayed in it.  . . . With a 10th-to-15th-place car we almost won the race.   That’s going to make some people mad, because they don’t race that way.”

When the race at Fort Worth was over and Keselowski’s ironically cherubic face was shown on the big screen, thousands of fans booed.  Clearly his style is not for everyone.

He’s not one of the good ole boys who once dominated this sport.  He grew up in modest means in Michigan, land of rust and harsh weather where you expect no breaks from anybody.  But he may be the wave of the future.

And in a sense, he’s a throwback to the past, when this was the most rough-and-tumble sport there was.  It all began, after all, with southern boys juicing up their cars to haul moonshine through the hills and stay ahead of the law.

There was a time when feuding and fighting was as much a part of NASCAR as grease spots and “blowed tars.”  In fact, it was a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison after the 1979 Daytona 500 that vaulted NASCAR into national consciousness.  That was the first 500-mile stock car race to be televised live.  Richard Petty won his sixth Daytona, but the scuffle made the front page of the New York Times, and the entire country became interested.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s NASCAR boomed.  People from all states loved the drama that accompanied the racing.  There were feuds.  Even family feuds.  In the 1994 inaugural of the Brickyard 400, Geoff Bodine accused brother Brett of wrecking him on purpose.  Brett admitted it was true, and the two brothers didn’t speak to each other for two years.  They did not reconcile until their father’s funeral.

But now we see a sport in decline – television viewership down more than 20% since 2006.  It could be because most of the stars are boring and robotic.   Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins popularity polls, but he shows little of the fire of his surly but captivating dad.

NASCAR’s governing body knows it has a problem and is trying to ramp up the competition and create more in-race tension.  As Ryan Newman, one of the remaining Sprint Cup contenders, observed, “They keep throwing cautions that are totally unnecessary.  There’s not debris on the race track and no reason to throw it.”

But they want a tightly bunched race, which sets up an aggressive driver like Keselowski to push his way through the pack.

Johnson, 39-year-old Californian, recalled:  “When I think back to when I started, we’d point people by, let them go.  There was this gentleman’s agreement on the race track.  That hasn’t happened in years.  We’ll cut each other’s throats any chance we get.”

Perhaps that’s going too far.  But a cut on the face?  A busted lip?  I’m not so sure that’s bad for the sport of car racing.

Comments will post after a short period for review