Hey, champ, how do you really feel about Danica and Ricky? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Brad Keselowski is having fun as the new face of NASCAR.
And the sport's new champion insists he's still going to do things his way.
"If it works, great. And if not, then whatever," Ford's newest driver says.
"I am going to be my own person... and look out for what is best for the sport. I have always felt that way, whether I was a champion or not. Every driver has a responsibility to make the sport better.
"I might have a louder voice now, but I took it seriously before I was a champion."
NASCAR kicked off Daytona SpeedWeeks Thursday with its annual Media Day frenzy, a whirlwind -- yet another pre-season whirlwind of PR, before any of these guys gets out on the track for real.
And it was a splashy NASCAR Productions production, with just about everything except Red Carpet treatment for drivers' wives (that's a Las Vegas thing).
As far as real news-worthy stuff, not much. But still all laid out with glitz and glamour, klieg lights and all, ...though one journalist here, perhaps already jaded, snipped that the Danica Patrick segment of the day-long show seemed too much like an episode of The Bachelorette. Seems the Danica Patrick-Ricky Stenhouse dating story is the hottest thing this sport has to offer a general audience at the moment.
Keselowski jumps at the opening: "We are a creative group, so I am sure we will come up with some good jokes.
"It stinks that the two-car tandem isn't going to work, because it will kill a lot of our material. They should bring it back just for the jokes."
The NASCAR frenzied media army at work (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski says Patrick and Stenhouse may have extra trouble this season -- both are rookies -- because they're dating.
"As a driver you make life decisions that put you in a position of danger all the time, 24-7," Keselowski says. "That inherently makes you a unique person, and the decisions you make, and mental process to get there.
"Whatever outside influences you have are going to affect how you perform. It is just the reality of it," Keselowski, single himself, says.
"It makes it a story because there is no way for it to not affect their performance."
Then Keselowski decided to take it all a step further, a bit tongue in cheek it would seem:
"It isn't so much a story that they are dating as it would be if they were to break-up. That would be incredible to watch, to be quite honest.
"There are so many different ways that could go. Imagine if they were to break up and then wreck each other the next six races because they were mad? That would be way more compelling.
"I think it is a story either way.
"It will be interesting for sure, and those side stories to our season -- as though we didn't have enough to talk about -- are fun."
Danica Patrick stops to smell the Valentine rose, er, carnation (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
On a more serious subject, perhaps the deeper NASCAR story at the moment is not even being played out here, but rather in Comcast headquarters, where a debate appears to be going on about how much money to put on the table in negotiations with NASCAR to buy back into this sport.
NBC was part of NASCAR's first six-year mega-network deal (2001-2006), but then dropped out, opening the door for ABC-ESPN to take over the second half of this sport's 10-month season. NBC is pitching NASCAR, but for just how much isn't clear.
Disney-ABC-ESPN, with that incredibly lucrative cable monopoly, is rolling in dough. And ESPN, with an internet army supplementing it's multi-channel operation, virtually dominates the American sports scene.
However NBC has been taking its lumps lately. Maybe NASCAR could provide some punch.
Outbidding the Disney-ABC-ESPN juggernaut might be difficult, though.
Still, NASCAR looks like a bargain. Fox just signed NASCAR for another eight years, at about $23 million per race weekend; for comparison, the National Football League will be getting about $300 million per NFL weekend from Fox/NBC/CBS (Fox alone paying about $55 million for its part of an NFL weekend).
NASCAR is considering mandatory baseline testing of drivers, to better pinpoint potential concussions, in 2014. But the test takes about 30 minutes, and how many drivers in a big crash like this would need to be tested? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And in another more serious topic, NASCAR says it is considering making base line 'concussion impact testing' mandatory in 2014, apparently in reaction to the two concussions last season that took Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the championship race.
Earnhardt says that's a good move: "It makes perfect sense to make it mandatory.
"It was nice of them to look into ways they could protect us from ourselves, really.
"The test is simple and pretty straightforward -- You sit at a computer for 30 minutes answering questions.
"It tests short-term and long-term memory, a lot of different things in the mechanics of the brain. It tests how competent you are.
"It's a hard test. Even if you don't have a concussion, the test can be difficult. But you take the test to get a baseline, because everybody is different.
"It's really a personality test at the same time.
"When you get into an accident, you may have or may not have had a concussion. You can take this test again and find out exactly what is happening to your brain... if things don't feel right, if you feel you're having some trouble.
"This test can pin-point where in the brain you're struggling... what kind of injury you have...what you can do to rehab and recover.
"It helped me a lot. There was a lot of good information I learned through that whole process.
"There's no way to diagnose concussion, but this is a good standard for being able to measure one."
Jeff Gordon says he's already taken the test too, because "there's potential for it to be mandatory in the future. Why not get ahead of the game? Plus, I'd rather have it before the season starts, before the potential of having a head injury, to get a baseline.
"I talked to Junior about it. He told me the process of it. It was pretty simple.
"I stay in pretty close contact with Dr. Petty; we're good friends, as well as I just admire his work and his opinion. So I mentioned it to him. We made it happen.
"It was fun to do. I tell you, it was stressful; it makes you think really hard. I haven't had to think that hard in a while...other than the closing laps of a Talladega or Daytona race.
"Whether it's voluntary or not, it's a good idea to have.
"I don't think NASCAR necessarily has to make it mandatory. But if you're a driver, you feel like you're going to be here a while, then you need to make it mandatory, in my opinion.
"I've hit my head many times: I felt like a crash-test dummy at times. But I don't know if I just really have a hard head, good helmet, good race cars. I've never been knocked unconscious, never had headaches following. I've had MRIs and things like that just for precautionary measures, but never had any issues.
"When you hear about guys having issues, you want to take every measure you can possible. If there's a way to get a baseline, it's a good idea."
NASCAR racing these days seems all about TV, and keeping TV people happy. Here, Mark Martin on the firing line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski has been doing his part to keep TV interested in this sport.
And he will be showcasing his comedy routines during Saturday night's Unlimited/Shootout as a commentator in the TV booth, since he didn't win a pole last season and thus, like Clint Bowyer, didn't make the race lineup.
But new teammate Joey Logano is in the sprint. Logano says the numerous unknowns with the new cars "will make it exciting for the fans."
And drivers too.
"There are a lot of unknowns on how the cars will handle," Logano says. "So having this race for us as a team is huge.
"We have a new spotter and need to work together out there.
"It is like preseason football: We need to learn as much as we can.
"As far as the racing goes, I would assume you are going to see something fairly similar to what you saw last year, but we will have to wait and see.
"We found things with the side-draft that work differently. You have to fine tune your techniques as a driver to find what you want for the 500."
And then there's the final 20-lap sprint. "Typical Daytona," Logano says. "You just have to get there somehow, which is probably the hardest part.
"Positioning yourself with 20 or 15 laps to go is the big thing. Figuring where you want to be to not get shuffled out.
"And then with five-to-go, I can make that charge.
"But everyone else decides your destiny. So you have to be on your game and quick, and communicating with your spotter.
"If you are 15th or 20th, you can pretty much know you will be in a wreck."
Joey 'Gameface' Logano: Saturday night's game plan? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Missing the sprint Keselowski says will hurt his chances to win the 500.
The switch from Dodge to Ford, though, may be a bigger factor in how well Keselowski does in these early weeks of the season.
"The switch to Ford is a lot of work," he says.
"But what will never be fair is to try to credit what part of last year's success was Dodge and what part was our team. It wouldn't be fair to do the same things this year. And there really wasn't a benchmark last year for us to go off of.
"Our best benchmark for this year will be the first four or five races. Beyond that, I don't trust anything."
If Saturday night's sprint gets too wild and crazy, it will be interesting to listen to Keselowski's analysis. Keselowski was outspoken last fall at Phoenix about Jeff Gordon's run-in with Clint Bowyer, an incident which nearly cost Keselowski dearly in the championship race, and which did cost Bowyer at shot at the title.
"We get road rage," Keselowski concedes, with a history of his own as reference perhaps. "We are human, just like you guys. I am sure you have had road rage.
"The difference in ours plays out at 200 mph instead of 65 or 70.
"Our cars, much like street cars, can be used as weapons. That is not a good thing.
"I will stick with what I have said, that I think the road rage style, intentional wrecking, however you want to label it, is really unhealthy for our sport.
"It makes us all look like amateurs.
"I would like to see that get controlled a little better.
"But at this point that is not the philosophy, and I will race around it.
"I definitely think it gets overplayed, and I think it is unhealthy for all of us."
Jimmie Johnson never looks like he's on the hot seat (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)