DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Outlandish, outspoken, and original, Brad Keselowski shocked no one when he announced he would commemorate his 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in his own inimitable fashion.
Hadn’t Keselowski already done that last November, at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway? That’s where the champion celebrated in Victory Lane by quaffing an industrial-sized pilsner glass filled with his Miller Lite sponsor’s finest product, then took part in a comical ESPN “Sunday Conversation.’’
As it turns out, Keselowski was just getting the party started.
He promised to reward himself with a unique gift after he helped car owner Roger Penske, whose struggles in NASCAR were a stark contrast to his unparalleled success in Indy cars, capture his first Sprint Cup title.
Did Keselowski have his eye on an exotic sports car? A speedboat? A new plane?
Wrong on all three counts.
Befitting his brash yet refreshing personality and his blue-collar background, Keselowski, 29, of Rochester Hills, Mich., eschewed those luxurious modes of transportation for a highly unconventional option: a World War II tank.
Why a tank? “A man should own a tank,’’ he said.
And where would he keep it? “Right in my driveway.’’
But he balked when overcome by sticker shock. “They are very expensive,’’ he said.
The spoils, in this case, did not go to the victor. But that was OK with Keselowski, who last season became the first driver in seven years not named Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson to hoist NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Trophy — and take a sloppy swig of beer from it.
“Watching him on ‘SportsCenter’ following the race, trying to drink a beer sure was not the best thing for our sport, and how he handled that,’’ chuckled Johnson, a five-time champion. “But, honestly, he and [crew chief] Paul [Wolfe] did an amazing job. When I think of them as competitors, they are awesome.’’
Keselowski led the Chase standings for five of the first six weeks of the 10-race playoff, winning at Chicago and Dover. He surrendered the lead to Johnson with four races left, but recaptured it with two to go and finished 39 points ahead of runner-up Clint Bowyer and 40 ahead of Johnson.
“He’s galvanized the team from the standpoint of leadership with Paul and the whole team,’’ said Penske, who won his first NASCAR championship when Keselowski captured the 2010 Nationwide Series title. “Never does he miss a day coming in the shop, putting his arm around the guys, and that makes a big difference.
“You can be a big shot, but you’ve got to get down on the ground and work with the guys that are doing all this work day in and day out.’’
Johnson said Keselowski will likely have to comport himself differently now that he is the reigning Sprint Cup champion, having earned the title in his third full season.
“Brad, as mature as he wants to portray himself, he had some growing to do,’’ Johnson said. “Now he is in the spotlight as the champion, and I think we all sit back and chuckle at times at some of the things he says and does. He is a great guy. He has the best intentions for our sport, for his sponsor, for his team.
“He just needs to mature a little.’’
Said Stewart, “I don’t think he’s going to feel that pressure, that weight [of a reigning champion]. Brad is pretty good about kind of doing things his own way, having his own identity.”
Keselowski’s exuberant coronation may be ushering in the era of NASCAR’s next-generation champion — young, personable, techno-savvy, and quick with an opinion — which would dovetail nicely with the unveiling of NASCAR’s next-generation car.
“I have my own way of doing things, and there is a little pride thinking that some of that is back to the way some of the people earlier in the sport did it,’’ Keselowski said. “I think you have to fight to be relevant and you can’t do things that were done in the past and feel like you are going to be relevant to today’s fans.
“I think you can find a balance for that, and I think that is what drives me in a lot of things I do.’’
One of those things is connecting with his fans through Twitter.
During a red-flag period in last year’s Daytona 500, Keselowski took a picture of his fellow competitors and posted it on his Twitter account as they stood outside their cars waiting on the backstretch for the track to be cleared of debris from Juan Pablo Montoya’s fiery crash into a jet engine dryer.
Keselowski’s tweet was one of the first from the playing field of a sporting event. It caused his Twitter account to erupt from 65,000 followers to more than 185,000 by the end of the race. Although NASCAR officials initially embraced Keselowski’s ingenuity, they reconsidered, implementing a ban on cellphones from the cockpit in future races.
“I just did it,” said Keselowski. “I didn’t think much about it. I thought it was something different and wanted to take a picture of it and send it out.
“I had no idea that race would be red-flagged for a fire and that it wouldn’t be my car but a car in the distance and a huge explosion. I had no idea. You can’t plan those things. What you can do is put yourself in a position to showcase how you feel about things.’’
So what does it take to earn a “follow’’ from him on Twitter? “You have to be relevant or funny,’’ he said.
When Keselowski does speak up, Johnson said, his voice will have some resonance in the garage as well as the grandstands.
“Once you are the champion, your voice carries much further,’’ Johnson said. “The more success you have in the sport, the voice will carry further and further. I had my own experiences where I would just casually mention something, and I didn’t realize how far it went, and maybe I wasn’t as accurate as I needed to be.
“So I think he’ll have a few moments like that, which will rein him back in some, and make him think about what he says and be more calculated.’’
But Keselowski doesn’t intend to mute his voice or homogenize his personality now that he’s champion. He intends to stay true to himself: outlandish and outspoken.
“I am going to do my own thing,’’ he said. “If it works, great. If not, then whatever. I am going to be my own person and look out for what is best for the sport. I have always felt that way, whether I was a champion or not.
“I feel like every driver has a responsibility to make the sport better and all it can be. I might have a louder voice now, but I took it seriously before I was a champion.’’