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The first big race of the NASCAR season is on Sunday, and Brad Keselowski, the sport's brash, young champion, will begin defending his title.
If you don't follow NASCAR closely, a video may have been your introduction to Keselowski last fall. An ESPN anchor asks Keselowski, who's holding a massive glass of foamy beer — which he drinks throughout the interview — what winning is like. Keselowski's response is unguarded.
"Pretty damn awesome," he says. "I've got a little buzz going here. I've been drinking for a little bit. But it's been pretty good man. I can't lie."
The video went viral and is so popular it has been posted and viewed all over YouTube.
A few months later, that interview still comes up anytime Keselowski is near a microphone. "Those moments, soaking them in and enjoying success as a team, are always a lot of fun, and they're always encouraged with beverages," he said.
Keselowski doesn't see it as a big deal. He was celebrating, so of course he had a few beers. The former president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Humpy Wheeler, says that's a mentality that a lot of NASCAR fans will raise a glass to.
"That's what they are — you know, the guy that drives a truck, he gets through work, he goes and he has a few beers. A dockworker, he's just going to go have a few beers, that's what he does," says Wheeler.
But not as many of those blue-collar fans have been coming out to watch in person the past few years. At Bristol and Talladega, two of the premier tracks, attendance is down substantially.
Eddie Gossage, president of the Texas Motor Speedway, says Keselowski can help fill the stands. Sure, beer antics are part of that, but he says the 29-year-old is also key to the sport's future because of how he uses social media.
"I follow Brad Keselowski on Twitter because he teaches me how to tweet just by following him," says Gossage.
Keselowski is candid, funny and takes fans behind the scenes on his Twitter account, which has about 360,000 followers. That doesn't mean he has the biggest fan base, but Gossage says Keselowski is creating a new blueprint to reach out to people.
"I think Brad Keselowski is a great champion, a young guy that does things in a young way, and he's teaching all of us," says Gossage.
But Keselowski is also a longtime student of NASCAR. His dad and uncle both raced, and he grew up working on the family cars. At age 14, he started racing. And now, he drives with old-school grit. Last season at the Texas Motor Speedway, for example, Keselowski and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson were battling for the win, and Keselowski banged into the side of Johnson.
Johnson still won the race, but that move drew criticism from some drivers. One even said Keselowski had a death wish.
Wheeler says there's nothing wrong with aggressive driving. Fans love it.
"He's not afraid to get in there and bang fenders when he has to, and that's the type of driver that appeals to the people that go into the grandstand or the people that are watching on TV," says Wheeler.
Or here's how Keselowski puts it: He says NASCAR is getting back to the core of what it stands for — and that's good for everybody.
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