NASCAR: 5 Ways a Brad Keselowski Championship May Change the Sport

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2012

NASCAR: 5 Ways a Brad Keselowski Championship May Change the Sport

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    They say that NASCAR is a cyclical sport, where you're a champion one day, a forgotten former hero the next.

    But one thing has remained constant ever since NASCAR was formed in Daytona Beach in the late 1940s: sooner or later, the oldsters get replaced by a new crop of youngsters.

    That not only applies to drivers, but also extends all the way up to NASCAR's top corporate offices. Sooner or later, folks like Brian France, Mike Helton and other current and longtime NASCAR officials are eventually going to retire.

    Whose hands are they going to leave the sport in? What will the future of the sport be? Who will be the next big name to become the face of NASCAR over, say, the next decade or two?

    Early Sunday evening, we very well may have the answer to some of those questions. If 28-year-old Brad Keselowski can keep Jimmie Johnson away and finish ahead of him (or at least fewer than 15 spots behind) Keselowski could very well write a new chapter on where the sport will be headed and a new road map to keep it going in the right direction.

    Here are five reasons why a Keselowski championship will potentially change the sport.

    (Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski)

1. No More Vanilla: A Fresh New Face and Attitude to Embrace

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    Brad Keselowski is not afraid to speak his mind (look at the trouble he got into for his expletive-laced diatribe after Sunday's race at Phoenix).

    While that may ruffle some feathers within the NASCAR administration, it would be in the sanctioning body's best interest going forward to embrace Keselowski's demeanor, rather than try to stifle it.

    Say what you want, but Keselowski is the epitome of the "Boys, have at it" mindset. Sure, the suburban Detroit native can come off at times as half-cocked or even cocky, but isn't that the type of driver the sport was built upon?

    Guys like Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip and others were once some of the most outspoken critics of the sport. But eventually, NASCAR realized that these critics were also the darlings of the fans and brought in millions of fans over the years to attend races or to buy sponsor products.

    But let's face it, the sport over the last 10 years or so has become very watered down, very vanilla, where it's often hard to know where one driver ends talking and another begins because they all say pretty much the same thing over and over: "I want to thank (fill in 20 different sponsor names). The (fill in manufacturer's name) ran so good today. And I want to thank the folks at (fill in more sponsors like series title holder Sprint), and all the guys back at the shop. I couldn't have done it without y'all."

    See what I mean? Vanilla. More of the same. B-O-R-I-N-G. Keselowski is anything but that. Granted, he may be a bit rough around the edges still, and he may not be as sophisticated as a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson have become, but Keselowski gives NASCAR something it hasn't had since Earnhardt or, more recently, when Tony Stewart first came on the scene: a true, down-home, blue-collar and grass-roots pure racer and personality.

    You know, the kind of guy Joe Fan could very easily envision himself sitting around and having a couple of cold beers (Miller Lite, of course) with. Keselowski truly is that kind of guy.

    NASCAR needs more of that, and hopefully it won't try and stifle Keselowski from having the kind of personality that has already attracted numerous new fans...and with the potential of attracting countless more after Sunday.

2. From Worries Oftentimes Come Wonders

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    NASCAR will have to support Keselowski, even if he is outspoken, because he is arguably the biggest magnet going right now to attract new fans, what with his social-media savvy, his tell-it-like-it-is outlook and a no-fear approach to the sport, even if it means he butts heads with or even ticks off fellow drivers or team owners.

    Everyone was afraid what kind of champ Tony Stewart would be after his first title in 2002. At the time, there were fears that Stewart would be too much of a hothead or a poor ambassador, that he'd represent the sport in the worst possible way, attract so much negative publicity, etc.

    So what happened? Stewart became a great ambassador and one of the sport's most popular drivers. Keselowski is cut from the same cloth.

    And one other plus about Keselowski: while we don't mean this as a knock at Johnson, a case can be made that Johnson is far from the former suburban San Diego motorcycle racer that he once was. He's now ultra-sophisticated, much like his mentor, Jeff Gordon.

    One can even make a case that Johnson may have lost touch with some of his roots. But we don't see that happening with the Polish Rocket. He's an old-school racer in a young racer's body. Heck, he survived growing up in suburban Detroit. There HAS to be lots of old-school vim and vigor within him.

    Some might even say that with the type of driver and personality he is, Keselowski was born 30 or 40 years too late, that he would have fit in so perfectly and mixed it up so well with guys like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.

    What's more, he has just the right combination of brashness and talent that on one hand may make NASCAR officials cringe, but at the same time, create a new media darling type that we haven't had in the sport since Earnhardt.

3. He Will Do Something Dale Jr. and Kyle Busch Haven't Yet...and May Never Will

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    If he wins the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead on Sunday, Brad Keselowski will have done something in 3 1/2 years that Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't done in 13 years and Kyle Busch still has yet to do in the Cup series: he'll have beaten both to the one lofty goal that unites all drivers and keeps them racing year after year.

    A championship at this young age will only allow Keselowski to become an even greater driver, champion and person. We can very easily see Keselowski win three or more Cup championships.

    After all, back in 2002, would anyone have predicted that Jimmie Johnson would win one Cup championship, let alone five in a row and potentially six (if things go south for Kes at Homestead) and even seven, had he not lost by eight points to Kurt Busch in 2004, or came in second to Matt Kenseth in 2003 in the final season prior to the introduction of the Chase for the Sprint Cup format?

    And, as much as I hate to say it, maybe it's time we start facing facts that, as much as we all would love to see him finally win that first elusive Cup championship, maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. is just never going to reach that lofty plateau. Junior just turned 38 last month.

    Until he hit the Chase, this year looked like it could finally be Junior's year to take home that Sprint Cup trophy. But as another season comes to a close and another year goes by without that Earnhardt name on the Cup championship trophy.

    It's been 18 years now since the late Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and last Cup title; maybe it's time to move on to someone who is 10 years younger and possibly holds more potential now than Junior ever will.

    Same thing with Busch, but to a lesser extent. He's just too good of a driver not to be a Cup champion some day soon. He just has to get his attitude straight, and we bet a Cup title will soon follow. This season was definitely not indicative of what the younger Busch brother can do.

    Who knows, a Keselowski championship could be motivation and incentive to Busch to finally go out there and be the kind of Cup champion so many millions have envisioned, much like the way they've envisioned the same out of Junior, only to come up short and disappointed season after season.

4. Could Singlehandedly Revitalize Grass-Roots Racing

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    It's no secret that grass-roots racing and short-track racing have struggled over the last decade.

    We've seen a number of well-known tracks close up, never to be heard from again. What was once yesterday's hot place for aspiring racers and fans to be on a Friday or Saturday night is now a subdivision of houses or a shopping mall.

    But a win by Keselowski could potentially give motivation to aspiring young blue-collar drivers that, if he could get to where he is today through hard work and perseverance, well then by golly, they can too.

    This could set off a whole new revival of interest in grass-roots racing and be a big shot in the arm for short tracks that are currently struggling, if not on the verge of joining so many other once-popular tracks that are now extinct.

    Now, if only the economy hopefully gets better too, to allow some young kids to get some of the same opportunities that Keselowski got while he was coming up in the sport.

5. Keselowski Championship = More New Sponsors and Money in the Sport?

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    A Keselowski championship could attract not only new fans, but potentially new sponsors to the sport, and not just to the No. 2 team or Penske Racing as a whole.

    And in a way, there's a big irony there: who would have predicted that names like Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, and Sam Hornish Jr., wouldn't be able to win billionaire businessman and legendary team owner Roger Penske his first Cup championship, but that a blue-collar guy from suburban Detroit named Keselowski potentially could? 

    It's no secret that the sponsorship side of NASCAR has been hurting now for at least the last six years. We've had some minor spurts of new companies that have dipped their toes into NASCAR's water, but for the most part, the sport still continues to struggle to gain significant major mega-rich companies to plaster their names across race cars and fire suits.

    Where are the Apples, Googles, Nikes, Microsofts, Southwest Airlines, Amazons, eBays and other significant brands? Why don't we have, say, the Apple Chevy or the Amazon Toyota or the Google Ford?

    Heck, even the much smaller IndyCar series snagged noted clothing manufacturer Izod. Why can't NASCAR get something similar? Why do those kinds of companies choose to align themselves with other sports, but not NASCAR?

    I'm not saying Keselowski is going to save the sport by himself, but the blue-collar, down-home, good old boy from suburban Detroit image could potentially be gold not only for him, but for other drivers as well.

    If Keselowski wins the championship on Sunday, it will not only open countless new doors to him for endorsements and new sponsorships, it will hopefully also open more new doors for other young (and yes, even older) drivers.

    Even though we won't hold it against him, there has been somewhat of an underlying feeling among many NASCAR fans that Jimmie Johnson's five consecutive championships really hurt the sport because of his domination.

    Companies that may have thought they'd have a good shot at great exposure with another driver and team, potentially could have changed their minds during Johnson's reign. We're just sayin'.

    Many fans have expressed that same feeling, that Johnson winning so much may have actually hurt the sport and turned off and alienated fans. And, potentially, new sponsors.

    But a fresh new face like Keselowski could very well make old or alienated fans fall back in love with the sport, let alone bring in a whole new generation of fans that NASCAR is so desperate to have. And sponsors who are equally desperate to have a new avenue to display and promote their wares.

    And it all could boil down to Bradley Aaron Keselowski, a.k.a. "Bad Brad" of Rochester Hills, Mich., to do it.

    Think about it: when all is said and done, is "Bad Brad" really all that much different than "The Intimidator"?

    The latter was one of the sport's most beloved champions. The former may start his own reign as a beloved champ come Sunday.