Brad Keselowski became a social media darling after hopping on Twitter during a lengthy delay in the Daytona 500.
Keselowski was the center of attention, and NASCAR seemed trendy and hip — a description its executives surely adored.
Turns out, tweeting from the car isn't cool with NASCAR.
Keselowski was fined $25,000 on Monday for tweeting during the red flag at Phoenix International Raceway. The punishment was confusing to fans who vented on Twitter, of course, wondering why Keselowski was punished for Sunday's tweets when he was celebrated by NASCAR for doing the exact same thing in February's season-opening race.
Some alleged the Sprint Cup Series points leader was actually being disciplined for his profanity-laced outburst after Sunday's crash- and fight-marred race.
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp on Tuesday dismissed the conspiracy theories, and said drivers had been told after the Daytona 500 that electronic devices — including cellphones — could not be carried inside the race cars going forward.
"Brad's tweeting at the Daytona 500 was really our first introduction to the magnitude of the social media phenomenon at the race track, especially how we saw it unfold that evening," Tharp said. "We encourage our drivers to participate in social media. We feel we have the most liberal social media policy in all of sports, and the access we provide is the best in all of sports.
"But we also have rules that pertain to competition that need to be enforced and abided by. Once the 500 took place, and in the days and weeks following the 500, NASCAR communicated to the drivers and teams that while social media was encouraged and we promoted it, the language in the rule book was clear and that drivers couldn't carry onboard their cars electronic devices, like a phone."
Keselowski, who takes a 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson into Sunday's season finale in his quest to win his first Sprint Cup Series title, has not commented on his penalty.
But with the championship on the line, his crew chief indicated Tuesday he'll be doing his best to keep the phone out of the No. 2 Dodge this weekend.
"Never even crossed my mind, to be honest with you," Paul Wolfe said. "We get so involved in worrying about how to make the race car go around the track that, obviously, Brad's cellphone is not on my mind a whole lot. I'll definitely remind him this weekend."
The Daytona 500 was stopped for nearly two hours when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer that was cleaning the track during a caution period. The crash caused a fuel explosion, and Keselowski used his phone to tweet pictures, answer questions and give updates on the cleanup during the delay.
The race, which had been rained out for the first time in 54 runnings, was being aired on Monday night in prime time for the first time in history and Keselowski's tweeting drew worldwide headlines.
Afterward, NASCAR specifically said Keselowski did not violate a rule barring onboard electronic devices and would not be penalized.
"Nothing we've seen from Brad violates any current rules pertaining to the use of social media during races," NASCAR said the day after the race. "We encourage our drivers to use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others."
NASCAR did not issue a technical bulletin to clarify phones could no longer be inside cars, and the clarification to drivers was apparently done quietly. In fact, Keselowski tweeted from Victory Lane at Bristol in March, and from inside his car parked on pit road during a rain delay at Richmond in September. It's possible someone could have handed him his phone both times.
A year ago, the outspoken Penske Racing driver was fined $25,000 headed into the finale for criticizing electronic fuel injection. At the time, NASCAR had been privately punishing drivers for making disparaging remarks about the series, but word of Keselowski's fine leaked and forced NASCAR to change its policy during the offseason.
Still, many fans were convinced this week's fine against Keselowski was actually for his post-race comments about the aggressive racing at Phoenix.
He'd been criticized by several drivers for racing Johnson hard over a pair of late restarts at Texas a week earlier, and felt his aggressive driving paled in comparison to Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer with two laps to go on Sunday. Gordon's retaliation also collected Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, and forced Keselowski to weave his way around the accident.
"It just drives me absolutely crazy that I get lambasted for racing somebody hard without there even being a wreck and then you see stuff like this ... from the same people that criticized me," he said. "It's OK to just take somebody out. But you race somebody hard, put a fender on somebody and try to go for the win, and you're an absolute villain. We can just go out and retaliate against each other and come back in and smile about it, and it's fine. That's not what this sport needs. It needs hard racing, it needs people that go for broke, try to win races and put it all out there on the line. Not a bunch of people that have anger issues."