The future's so bright, for Brad Keselowski (L) and crew chief Paul Wolfe (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
No, there were no dancing women in the fountains when Brad Keselowski got home from NASCAR's Las Vegas banquet.
And no Kardashians called.
After winning the championship two months ago, Keselowski said he was half-hoping for an influx of beautiful women into his life.
Ah, nothing like being one of NASCAR's youngest and most eligible stars.
But then when he arrived in North Carolina a few years back, to make a bid for fame and fortune, he had, well, an outsider's view of this little part of the American sports world:
He wound up over at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s place, down the road from Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I thought there would be women in the fountains, and things like that -- just 'awesomeness,' like the Playboy mansion," Keselowski says with is that a sheepish grin.
"That didn't happen.
"Now I have this little fountain in my house, and maybe in my mind (after the championship) I felt maybe women in the fountain....
"In 2009 after Jimmie Johnson won that championship, I told him 'Gosh, you must be stoked.'
"He said 'Look, man, when you win a championship, you get up the next morning and do all the same things. You still have to clean up the dog poop....'
"That set me off to not have the highest expectations.
"But you still have hopes."
Now the laughter.
Cheers! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brad Keselowski is a fun kind of guy. A little outrageous at times, yes, which is something this sport sorely needs, even if NASCAR's stiff-shirt execs don't see it that way. (A $25,000 fine for using his cell phone? Uh, isn't this sport sponsored by one of the country's top cell phone companies? Maybe it's time for those guys to climb down out of their ivy tower and get out into the real world....)
Hey, Kes, how about those plans to find a tank, a real tank, to ride around in? Well...
"Do you know how hard it is to get a tank?" Keselowski says with a grin. "Apparently as hard as it should be.
"But I'm working on it. It's just a lot harder than you think it should be."
Keselowski may be just what this sport needs -- a new star with a good sense of humor, and willing to speak his mind.
NASCAR's many fines haven't broken his spirit yet. (Maybe Kyle Busch can weigh in on that.)
Hope Keselowski enjoyed those few off-weeks, because now he's not only cranking up for another endless season of stock car racing, but he's also lined up for a hefty round of champion promotions in the coming weeks. "Nine days straight now on the road doing media," he says wearily.
Well, just Twitter away @keselowski...
Roger Penske (R) soaking Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
At Phoenix last fall his title bid nearly came to a sudden end, in the confusing and controversial melee in the final miles. And Keselowski expressed his anger at all that reckless driving in no uncertain terms.
A few days later NASCAR hit him with another big fine, ostensibly for carrying a cell phone during the race, although the sanctioning body was well aware of that right from the first race of the season. No wonder some saw that fine as NASCAR expressing its displeasure at Keselowski expressing his displeasure.
That wasn't the first time Keselowski has run afoul of the stock car racing cops for something they didn't like him talking about.
"I made the comments I did in Phoenix for a reason, because I think that kind of racing -- intentional wrecking -- is extremely harmful to the sport. It jeopardizes the credibility of all of us.
"What I saw was the championship I was trying to win becoming a back-story to something that kind of chicken-racing."
Any more reaction from NASCAR president Mike Helton on that? Has he talked with Helton since?
"Oh, I think he knows how I feel," Keselowski says. "We have talked.
"But I don't have a great feel for how he feels about it. I would suggest you ask him...and I would be interested in hearing how he responds when you ask him."
Teammates: Joey Logano (L) and Brad Keselowski. On the Ford team. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Roger Penske didn't hesitate back when rival team owner Rick Hendrick blinked when Keselowski first came on the big market.
Now Keselowski has paid off big for Penske, with Penske's first NASCAR Cup championship in his 40 years in this branch of the sport.
In fact Keselowski, and his fun-loving nature, may be just what Penske, at 75, needs to stay fired up.
A bonus this season -- newcomer Joey Logano, another castoff, this one from the Joe Gibbs camp.
Keselowski and Logano have been bonding the past few months, working together on Keselowski's wounded soldier project. Keselowski, in a low-keyed, no-spotlight program, gives war-weary warriors psychological uplifts, with things like free tickets to races and ride-arounds afterwards.
It's the other side of this wild-and-crazy guy.
And of course there is more to Brad Keselowski than all this. He is a racer, a real racer. (Remember that series of run-ins with Carl Edwards back when Keselowski was just breaking into the sport? And remember how Keselowski refused to give up his line at Talladega to Edwards' blocking move.....)
Penske compares Keselowski to legendary Rick Mears, certainly high praise.
"His driving skills are a lot like Rick's," Penske says. "Rick wasn't as vocal, and didn't have as outward a personality...
"But Rick was a thinker, and when it was time to go, he was ready. And Brad, he's got a wide windshield -- he's always watching who's ahead of him. And that's the way Rick was.
"One thing many may not know about Brad is that he has been a common thread throughout this whole organization. He's 'positive.' If we have a bad pit stop, he doesn't complain; he says 'We'll get 'em next time.'
"That kind of approach in the organization has made a huge difference. He's helped us galvanize as one team.
"He's got a heart of gold. Look at his wounded warrior project....At Bristol he took a young man who had lost his arms and his legs around the track. At Christmas Brad called and said 'I've got something special for you.' And at Johns Hopkins they had grafted arms onto this guy...and Brad and Joey were there. The two of them were there.
"Brad isn't greedy. He's a pro. Look at his driving skills, they're in the top of the sport right now. He could drive for anyone in this sport...but he wants to make this his place."
Winning. Can Brad Keselowski keep it up in 2013? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Penske likes the youth element in his camp. Keselowski at 28, Logano at 22, Ryan Blaney at 18. Sam Hornish at 33 is the elder statesman.
"The youth movement is here," Penske says. "If these drivers have 10, 12, 14 years with us, and if we can provide them with the right cars, they could be like Rick Mears, who spent his whole career with us.
"They're exciting, they're really motivated....and they know they need each other to be successful, and so far the chemistry has been outstanding."
Veteran Indy-car star Hornish is now paired on the Nationwide tour with crew chief Greg Erwin, charged with pushing Hornish to the series championship, which could be a relaunching pad back to the Cup series.
Blaney is the impressive son of NASCAR veteran Dave Blaney....and another promising young racer that Ford has snagged.
Getting Hornish back up to Cup appears a major item on Penske's agenda. Hornish has been a Penske man for years, though Hornish has had some issues making the transition from Indy champ in 2006 to the NASCAR world.
"The mistake I made," Penske says, "is that I didn't get him enough into the Nationwide series. We won't make that mistake with Ryan.
"Sam did a good job in Nationwide last year, and you saw how well he did when we called him up (mid-season) to Cup.
"Sam was very instrumental in testing some of the pieces that helped Brad win the championship.
"I told Sam today that we're going to give him the best crew chief we can find, and our goal is for Sam to win the championship. Not finish second or third, but to win.
"He's got the tools and ability to do that now."
Ryan Newman, a Penske driver for several years, and the man who finally got Penske into Daytona 500 victory lane, and Penske talked last year about putting together a new deal. It didn't come about, Penske says, because he he didn't feel comfortable expanding back to a three-car Cup team. In fact he says having just a two-car operation was key in winning the championship "because we could make changes almost race to race, running a different car."
With an indirect nod to some of this sport's aging stars -- for example, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are both 41, Jeff Burton is 45, Jimmie Johnson is 37, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 38 -- Penske figures he is well situated.
"There are some drivers in NASCAR who are nearing the end of their careers, and we need talent to drive these cars -- you've got to be fit, and you've got to be committed," Penske says. "And with testing being so important, we can use these younger drivers."
Drivers of course are only part of the equation. The cars are another part, and at the moment a major question.
The newly redesigned stock cars are still a work in progress, and how well they'll perform is up for debate. The final designs weren't really settled on until December...after crew chiefs, anxious to start building their new fleets, pressured NASCAR to come up with some solid rules.
During Daytona testing in mid-January, Keselowski said his cars appeared a bit off the pace.
But then that Daytona test was pretty much a bust, some teams say. And certainly there isn't much incentive for someone to show off just what he's got for the sport's biggest event.
Penske says he's not worried.
"The cars we had there weren't the cars we plan to race," Penske says. "We were the first ones with metal bodies on our cars...but we're still getting our engines suited in the cars."
Penske's shift from Dodge to Ford includes not only body changes and engine changes but also changes in how the new engines actually fit inside the cars, not an inconsiderable point.
"I think we're in great shape," Penske says. "Joey was in the top-3 most of the test."
Logano -- and remember how young he still is -- seemed to have some trouble fitting into the Joe Gibbs operation. And sponsor Home Depot, tired at losing so many championships to arch-rival Lowe's, was putting on heavy pressure, which didn't help things.
A major plus for Penske, and Logano, is that Shell, one of the sport's biggest sponsors, has renewed for five years, through 2018. That's stability.
Roger Penske, now teamed with Ford (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of the big early season questions is how well will the Penske men do with Fords, particularly Roush-Yates engines.
Penske says the two men as point-of-contact in that are his own Mike Nelson and Roush's Robbie Reiser.
"They're the ones who are working on the collaboration, the things we're trying to do together," Penske says. "Robbie and Mike have both bought into that, and with Ford it's been seamless. We're really looking forward to a benchmark when we get to the track."
That Penske would agree to use engines from another team is curious. Though it obviously makes good business sense from Ford's standpoint -- Ford officials, remember, brokered a peace treaty between Roush and Robert Yates, after years of dueling -- it's a departure for Penske.
And it is striking that Penske would shut down a championship engine operation, which at one time had 80 top notch people on staff. He said he was hoping Dodge/Chrysler would take the opportunity...but the car maker didn't bite. (And what might that say for reports that Dodge/Chrysler might be interested in returning to NASCAR.)
Penske says he had a 60-man engine department the past several years. "About a third of them have been integrated into the race team, which is good, because they're strong technical people," Penske said. "And about 15 or 20 went directly into Yates' operation.
"The balance, we working a severance program.
"So everyone landed on his feet, though not all just where they wanted to go."
Dodge's decision not to sign Penske to another long-term contract was quite surprising, considering the car maker had no other great options.
Penske said when he realized that, "it was paramount to find a partner who was committed to a longer term.
"We understand why Dodge wasn't able to go forward full-bore like we wanted.
"Ford, with its winning capabilities and the technical things they could offer us on the engine side, made a perfect fit for us.
"We'll make a slight course correction from where we want to be.
"But we're building our own... and having Jack's engines will give us a benchmark, a report card, each weekend."
The cat in the hat. How will Jack Roush and Roger Penske work together in 2013? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)