Opinion: Brad Keselowski says he wants to be a champion who leads, but is anyone following?

Jamey Price

When Brad Keselowski won the 2012 Sprint Cup title he said he wanted to be one of the sport’s leaders. But six months into his reign as champion is anyone following?

When Brad Keselowski was accepting his trophy as the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort last November, he had a message for his peers sitting before him.

"As we look into '13, I hope as a sport we can continue to find common ground to unify," said Keselowski, sounding very much like a politician running for office. "We have some of the smartest people that can solve any problem.

"As a champion, I want to be your leader, and I want to help you make it happen."

Six months into his reign as champion, has Keselowski become that person others in the garage look to for guidance?

While continuing to be loquacious in front of the media and having little reservations about speaking his mind on a variety of topics, it appears as if his leadership skills are still a work in progress

"I don't know if he's called any meetings to order. I wasn't invited to any of them," said 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth last weekend at Charlotte. "I know he's not my leader. I don't know if he's the leader of the drivers. I think being the champion, his opinion may carry more weight or more people are listening compared to someone who's not."

Keselowski's approach as the defending champ is in stark contrast to Kenseth's measured, don't-make-waves mentality. It's a tactic that has proved beneficial as the 14-year veteran is among the more respected drivers in the sport.

However, that doesn't mean he is afraid to speak out when he feels it's needed.

Last month after NASCAR slapped his Joe Gibbs Racing team with penalties most viewed as disproportionate, Kenseth called the sanctions "grossly unfair" and "borderline shameful." But because he rarely takes such a hard-line stance, the comments carried more weight. (The penalties were later dramatically reduced when appealed.)

This is nothing like Keselowski's propensity to be more blunt and candid with an opinion when placed in a similar situation.

Hours before the April 13 Texas race, his Penske Racing team had rear-end suspension parts and pieces confiscated by NASCAR during pre-race inspection. Afterward, Keselowski unleashed a profanity-laced tirade accusing unidentified parties of spying on his team and alerting officials to any potential misdeeds.

The difference in how the two champions handled their respective grievances against NASCAR was conspicuous.

Both were straightforward and honest with their feelings. Yet Kenseth didn't level any accusations against his competition or allude to a conspiracy where NASCAR was out to get his team for reasons he wouldn't elaborate on.

"Brad is obviously very opinionated and he definitely has his own ideas. I'm sure his ideas are shared by some, not shared by all necessarily," Kenseth said. "I think it's a good thing; that's what makes Brad Brad."

And Texas wasn't the first time Keselowski created a mini-controversy this season.

In an interview with USA Today in the days leading up to the Daytona 500, the 29-year-old had some rather pointed remarks about the direction he felt NASCAR was heading and shared his viewpoint on what could be done better.

It was not a surprise when NASCAR CEO Brian France took exception to some of what Keselowski said and called him in for a meeting to clear the air.

Much like Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson also tends to be more reserved and doesn't actively try to assert himself as a leader. If he has a question about a ruling or wants to offer his input, his approach is to step into the NASCAR hauler behind closed doors, away from the cameras.

One point of contention the five-time champion has been vocal about is how Keselowski has conducted himself since winning the title in November. In particular, Johnson was not enamored how in the immediate aftermath of securing his first title last November, Keselowski appeared on SportsCenter intoxicated and swigging beer out of a giant glass.

"As mature as he wants to portray himself as, he has some growing to do," Johnson said in February during Daytona 500 Media Day. "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."

When asked about Keselowski's leadership as champion Wednesday, Johnson explained the different methods the two have used to demonstrate leadership.

"I think Brad tries hard to be that voice and wants to be that voice," he said. "Myself, I try to step back and take it all in, understand NASCAR's point of view, the fans' point of view, the competitors, and it's really easy to have agenda in some of these things.

"Truthfully, I don't care to get a lot of recognition for it, so I don't bang my own drum about what I say or do or what NASCAR might consider from something I've suggested to them or talked to them about. I just want our sport to be strong and healthy. So all of the champions and their advice is helpful and kind of helps build that all up."

To Keselowski's credit, he recognizes that in just his fourth full season at the Cup level he still has a lot to learn. And that maturity to becoming the figurehead others turn to seeking direction will only come with time -- and more success.

"If I could win another championship, win some more big races, do some other great things, certainly that goal of being a leader of the garage is obtainable," Keselowski said at Charlotte. "But step one is making sure that everybody knows what that goal is and I hope that it's known. But I'm smart enough to realize that I still have steps to go."

If one sign of a true leader is the ability to recognize their own limitations, it sounds as if Keselowski is well on his way to being the leader he wants to be.

But as Kenseth and Johnson have demonstrated, more than anything in NASCAR it's actions that speak the loudest, and on that front Keselowski still has room for improvement.

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