Brad Keselowski closed his championship acceptance speech last December by telling the sport, “As a champion I want to be your leader.”
Some in racing are still waiting for that to materialize.
While nobody doubts his ability to drive a race car, Keselowski admittedly has struggled to grasp the reins as the voice and soul of NASCAR.
“I’m smart enough to realize that I still have steps to go,” he said. “Could be better.
“Certainly there are other drivers that have been around longer and have a stronger reign and deservedly so have a stronger voice, but I would like to be with them, absolutely,” Keselowski said. “Look, I’m not perfect. I know that and I don’t pretend to be.”
At Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Keselowski not only is working to gain the confidence and respect in the garage area, but he’s also trying to get his No. 2 Ford into contention to defend his championship.
Counting Saturday’s race, there only are nine more chances for Keselowski to work his way back into the top 10 or win a race to possibly qualify for one of two wild-card spots for the Chase for the Championship. With just one top-10 finish in the past nine races, the defending series champion is desperate to get things turned around.
Tony Stewart is the only driver to win a championship (in 2005) and not qualify for the Chase the following year since NASCAR created its playoff for the 2004 season.
While Keselowski deals with the challenges of a winless season and a 13th-place position in the current standings, others long ago discounted his “leadership” role.
He’s never been afraid to test NASCAR’s authority, including a comment during the pre-season that questioned NASCAR’s business model.
He used a profanity-laced tirade after his Penske Racing team was caught with illegal rear-end housings, saying other teams were spying on him and ratting him out to NASCAR.
He also drew the ire of car owners Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs after he claimed they stole several key crewmen from his championship team.
Hendrick responded by saying, “I hope he figures out and begins representing himself and the sport with more class.”
Gibbs called him “irresponsible.”
In four seasons Roger Penske has gotten used to explaining his emotional and talented driver.
“I think (Brad) thinks a lot,” Penske told the Detroit Free Press. “I don’t think he speaks before he thinks, quite honestly.”
Other drivers have been saying that all along.
Former champions Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson believe leaders lead by example, not words. They wonder what Keselowski meant when he proclaimed himself to be a leader.
“If he’s called any meetings to order, I wasn’t invited to them,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know, I don’t know what that all means. Brad (Keselowski) is very, obviously opinionated and he has definitely his own ideas and I’m sure some of his ideas are shared by some, not sure by all necessarily.
“I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s what makes Brad, Brad. I think everybody is different in this sport and different personalities are important and good. I don’t know what a leader means. I know he’s not my leader. I don’t know if he’s a leader of the drivers.”
Johnson is a five-time series champion, but he relies more on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to make points with NASCAR since Gordon is in his 21st season and he’s won four championships and 87 races.
Others have taken a more cynical approach to Keselowski.
“A leader is somebody you look up to,” Ryan Newman. “It all depends on your position. If you look up to somebody like that, then yeah, he is your leader, but if you don’t, then somebody else is.
“Do I look up to Brad? Only when I’m standing next to him.”
Keselowski accepts the criticism. He also promises not to back down.