It wasn't that long ago that the class of up-and-coming Sprint Cup drivers was embarrassingly low on talent. 2006 saw Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.—all three of whom are in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup—establish themselves as budding stars, but rookie classes ever since have been hit or miss.
With so few talented drivers coming up the pipeline, partially due to the worldwide economic climate eliminating sponsorship money, it seemed like the "next big thing" would be years away.
Brad Keselowski has the potential to change all that this year.
Sure, it can be argued that last year was Keselowski's true breakout season, as the Penske Racing driver scored three wins and finished fifth in the championship. But this year, in only his third full season of Sprint Cup competition, and with seven races to go in the championship, the Michigan native has the potential to score an unlikely title that could lead to a surge in popularity for the sport.
The greatest identifying characteristic about a potential Keselowski title is that, simply, he's not Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart. Those two drivers have combined for each of the past seven titles, comprising every Chase except for Kurt Busch's triumph in the inaugural year of 2004.
That era of repeating champions has helped contribute to waning fan interest and criticism of the format, but a Keselowski title could bring some fans back.
After all, the 28-year-old is one of the youngest competitive drivers in the sport, and one of its best in engaging with the fans themselves. His Twitter account has over 295,000 followers, comparable to some stars like Johnson (310,000+) and Jeff Gordon (294,000+) and ahead of others like Hamlin (180,000+) and Kasey Kahne (221,000+). His unique sense of humor and willingness to respond to anything that catches his eye makes him both a fun follow and an easy driver to like.
It's clear in Keselowski's demeanor that he's not only a committed driver, but a true fan of the sport who honors its history. His Twitter feed was dominated by Chris Economaki-related content when the "dean of motorsports journalism" passed away at age 91 this past week.
One can only wonder, if he were to take this year's title, how he would honor legendary team owner Roger Penske, who has never won a Sprint Cup, or manufacturer Dodge, which plans to leave the sport after this season.
In the end, seeing a young driver that is grounded in the roots of NASCAR take home a championship could be a masterpiece in shifting the public perception of the sport. Keselowski's outspoken nature, much like a young Darrell Waltrip, has the potential to captivate old-school fans whose interest waned in NASCAR's unsuccessful attempts to capture a hip, west coast audience in the mid-2000s.
He also has the potential to attract sponsors back into the sport with his charisma and fan-friendly attitude. In fact, a championship might convince Dodge to take its 2013-ready Charger redesign, which it put into mothballs after Penske decided to run Fords next year, and re-enter the sport in 2014.
Sure, not everybody in the sport is a Brad Keselowski fan. But as far as identifying the next great driver in the sport goes, he's absolutely a front-runner for the honors. And with what would undoubtedly be a popular championship win in 2012, Keselowski could elevate himself to super-stardom in a sport that desperately needs a change of face at the front of the pack.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.