KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jeff Gordon learned his lesson over time. So did Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
It’s the same lesson learned by every young driver who finally achieves stardom: What to say, when and how to say it and, most importantly, how to deal with the fallout from the content.
“You feel like you have more respect,” Gordon said this week, “and you feel like the thoughts that are running through your head, you’d like to get some of those out there.
“There’s still a way to do that,” added the four-time champion, who in 1995 became the youngest Cup champion when he won the first of his four titles at the age of 24. “You just have to sometimes thread the needle on what you are going to gain from it and what you’re going to lose.”
That’s the lesson that Brad Keselowski is being forced to learn.
The brash, outspoken and usually unfiltered Sprint Cup champion has been vocal about what he perceives as unfair treatment by NASCAR, even going on a profanity-tinged tirade last weekend in which he told reporters that they had “no idea ... what’s going on.”
He already disputed a penalty at Martinsville for pitting outside his stall, but the driver of the No. 2 Ford was left seething over harsh penalties handed down by NASCAR this week.
Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano had a combined seven crew members get six-race suspensions after inspectors confiscated an unapproved rear-end housing from the Penske Racing cars last weekend at Texas. Both of their crew chiefs were also fined $100,000, and the drivers were dealt 25-poiint penalties that bumped them down in the Sprint Cup standings.
Penske Racing has appealed the penalties — Keselowski insisted Friday the part in question was approved — so both of the teams are intact for today’s race at Kansas Speedway.
“The parts that we had were approved parts — they are concerned that we modified them,” Roger Penske said Saturday from the IndyCar race in Long Beach, Calif. “NASCAR felt what we had provided them for approval then these parts were different during the inspection process.”
No date for Penske’s appeal has been set.
“I don’t think I’ve been surprised by much of anything the last two or three days,” Keselowski said after qualifying 33rd for this weekend’s race. “But I think it’s really important to let the appeals process work out on its own. That’s why it exists. And I’m thankful there is a process for appeals, because obviously, we’re in an agree-to-disagree stage between Penske Racing and NASCAR.”
Keselowski isn’t the typical, straight-laced Sprint Cup champion.
He has been slapped on the wrist for tweeting from inside his car, and connects with a younger generation of fans during a crucial period for the sport. He can be charming and endearing, vexing and annoying, with an unmistakable anti-establishment persona that seems to resonate.
When he wrapped up the title last year at Homestead, he celebrated by swigging some Miller Lite — his primary sponsor, of course — in victory lane as NASCAR chairman Brian France watched on.
In fact, he isn’t that unlike Gordon, who burst onto the scene in the mid-90s and immediately challenged the status quo, feuding with drivers who had been around for years.
“I made a comment about Michael Waltrip my rookie year, and he wrecked me at Darlington, and I wish I could have taken it back,” Gordon admitted. “Looking back on the situation, he didn’t deserve some of the comments. It’s little instances like that where you should just, less is more.”
Johnson was just 26 when he led in points as a rookie, and while he wouldn’t capture the first of his five titles for a few more years, he still had to learn quickly how to act.
He’s only become wiser over time, too.
“I’ve said it before, Brad is a huge talent,” Johnson said, “but as we all know, Brad will say things, and if you’re in the sport long enough, you know when to be careful. ... I think there’s a few lessons that Brad’s learned this year as to when to say something.”
Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
“I think everyone has said stuff they want to take back,” said Kenseth, the 2003 champion. “But I don’t know if that’s the case with Brad. He says what’s on his mind and that’s who he is.”
That’s what makes him such a polarizing figure.
He is loved and loathed, depending on the person and the day, but almost universally respected. Nobody doubts the talent of the blue-collar kid from Detroit, or questions the time and energy that he puts into staying in contention on a weekly basis.
The past couple of weeks may have demonstrated how glaring the spotlight can be when you’re on top, but it doesn’t seem to have mellowed one of NASCAR’s most colorful drivers.
“I think we all love how outspoken Brad is, but being that outspoken can sometimes get you in trouble and I think in this case, you know, it’s probably been a pretty valuable lesson for a young guy, a new champion,” Gordon said. “His opinion matters more. He’s got more people listening. So sometimes it makes you want to say more and be more outspoken and then there’s times when you think about it and you go, ‘You know what? ‘I probably just should have said less.’”