Brad Keselowski has been NASCAR's social- media sensation throughout the year, but his championship in the Sprint Cup Series has elevated him to the top of the sport.
Step aside Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. There's a new champion in NASCAR's top series. Either Johnson or Stewart had won the title each year from 2005-11, but Keselowski is now the one on the Sprint Cup throne. And what a unique champion he's going to be.
Keselowski, a 28-year-old Twitter-crazed driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., is the first next-generation driver in Cup to win a championship.
He's currently in a whirlwind of media obligations, including a Tuesday appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. He'll be honored as the champion next week in Las Vegas.
"I'm going to meet some cool people," Keselowski said. "I've always wanted to date a celebrity. I'm just throwing that out there. That would be really cool, don't you think? Not a Kardashian."
What a year it's been for Keselowski, particularly with his Twitter stardom. Keselowski's popularity significantly increased within hours, as he generated more than 100,000 new followers on the social media site, after tweeting photos and commentary of a freakish accident that occurred in the late-going of the Feb. 27 rain-delayed Daytona 500. Juan Pablo Montoya lost control of his car and then slammed into the back of a track-drying vehicle while the race was under caution.
NASCAR officials didn't exactly approve of Keselowski pulling his cell phone out of his driver-suit pocket while the race was briefly stopped for track- surface repairs. Shortly after, NASCAR implemented a rule banning drivers from having electronic devices in their cars during competition.
Who became the first driver to violate the rule? Keselowski, of course.
Last week, NASCAR penalized Keselowski with a $25,000 fine and probation for the remainder of the year for having a phone in his car while on the track at Phoenix. He was using it when NASCAR red-flagged the race following Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon's accident.
Keselowski's rise to greatness in NASCAR's premier racing circuit has been a bumpy ride over the years to say the least. During his first full-season of competition in Sprint Cup two years ago, many wondered if the Penske Racing driver would make it in the series. Even though Keselowski won the 2010 Nationwide Series championship, his season in Cup that year was less than stellar, as he recorded just two top-10 finishes and ended the year 25th in points.
"I think I suffered from some serious confidence issues when I first came into Cup that were a result of, you know, a lot of things, mostly just not having the speed to be successful and trying to do too much," Keselowski admitted. "I was trying too hard to be the 'I' in team, and there is none. That's pretty obvious looking back now. But I didn't know that. I do now."
In an attempt to boost Keselowski's Cup efforts for 2011, team owner Roger Penske moved Paul Wolfe into the crew chief role for Keselowski, who switched from the No. 22 car to the No. 2, the "Blue Deuce," with Miller Lite sponsoring his efforts. Wolfe guided him to the Nationwide title.
Keselowski and Wolfe didn't storm out of the gate at the start of the '11 season, but the two made incredible headway later in the year, particularly in August when he won at Pocono and Bristol as well as finished second at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and third at Michigan while driving with a broken left ankle. His surge in the late going of the regular season earned him a wild card spot for the championship Chase. He went on to finish the year fifth in points.
"It's not until you have a group around you that shows you that you don't have to do all the work, that you can share it, and that as long as you respect them, care about them and work with them, you can be successful," Keselowski said. "And that's something I had to learn on my own. I never had anybody teach me that. Nobody ever taught me about teamwork. That's something I had to learn on my own."
With three wins during the regular season, Keselowski began this year's Chase in the fourth seed. He quickly jumped to the top of the point standings when he won the Sept. 16 Chase-opener at Chicagoland.
"Once we won Chicago, I felt like we could do it," Keselowski said. "I really did. And I knew that we had the speed. So many mile and a halfs in the Chase and all of them aren't away like Chicago, and I felt like at that moment that we had a group that could get the job done."
After a fierce points battle with Johnson in the first eight Chase races, Keselowski pulled ahead of Johnson by 20 points at Phoenix after the five-time series champion cut a tire and made contact with the wall, which led to a 32nd-place finish.
Johnson's hopes of winning a sixth title went up in smoke when he suffered a failed rear-gear on his car, leading to a 36th-place finish and allowing Keselowski to easily wrap up the championship.
"I'm just disappointed that we came so close," Johnson said "We had 80 percent of the Chase that we wanted to have, a ton of momentum late in the season, and then those final two races bit us."
So how will Keselowski do in his new role as Sprint Cup champion?
"He'll do great," four-time Cup champion and Homestead race winner Jeff Gordon said. "His ability to reach out to the social media and the younger crowd, I think that he's somebody that wants to take it and wants to be that, and because of that, he'll put a lot of effort into it.
"He's entertaining. You never know what you're going to get with Brad. I enjoy or look forward to watching him, and I think with this experience that he will just mature to a whole new level because of being in this position and carrying this responsibility. When he sees all that's involved, every champion that I've ever seen win their first one, they always come out of it with a whole new perspective on past champions."
After becoming Sprint Cup's newest champion, Keselowski tweeted, "We did it!"
He sure did, and now he's feeling on top of the world.