LAS VEGAS — As much as it tries to move forward at a fast clip, NASCAR still clings onto the ghost of Dale Earnhardt.
It is a respectful reverence for a man legions of fans considered the baddest man on the planet.
More than a decade after his death, the void continues. Jimmie Johnson won five Cup titles but has never been accepted into the family. Too polished, too California cool. Trevor Bayne had a shot at it after winning the Daytona 500 in 2011, but his career has mostly run on idle since then.
Finally, along comes Brad Keselowski.
His official weeklong coronation as the 2012 Sprint Cup champion in Las Vegas solidified that potential, not only in boisterous Miller Lite toasts, but in a humble message he delivered during his acceptance speech Friday night at the Wynn Casino.
Everyone expected Keselowski to be a wild child, much like he was in Homestead a few weeks ago when he showed up at the post-race press conference with an oversized champagne bottle.
But Keselowski flew solo to the lectern on the stage, accompanied only by a couple of handwritten notes he had scribbled down during the ceremony. Forget the teleprompter. Keselowski spoke from the heart, ending his platitudes and thank yous with a message that everyone in NASCAR should all come together to make the sport better.
Hardly anyone saw it coming, but that was a good thing.
"It's refreshing," Tony Stewart said. "It's nice to see somebody who speaks from the heart. That's the way all of us should be."
At 28, Keselowski seems to understand that it takes many things to be a champion, and it's not just about running the fastest or ramming into people who get in the way. You respect the sport. You respect your peers. You respect the journey of getting there.
"Being inside that banquet hall and looking at all those banners [of past champions], that's pretty damn remarkable," Keselowski said. "I'd never thought I'd ever see my name on the list with those people."
It's significant to note that veterans like Johnson, Stewart, and Jeff Gordon — who own 12 Cup titles between them — have embraced Keselowski. The kid is all right, even if Stewart and Johnson tried to ply Keselowski with tequila shots before the ceremony.
"Tony was determined to send him on stage feeling right," Johnson said.
They told Keselowski it was a rite of passage, as they poured half of their liquor on the floor when Keselowski wasn't looking. It could have been worse. Johnson found out Keselowski's room number at the Wynn early in the week, but couldn't pull off ordering gobs of caviar, cheese plates and champagne, all under Brad's tab.
Between the tequila shots and a week's worth of functions and a few liquid refreshments along the way, Keselowski lost his voice, and was hoarse by the time he took the stage. Emcee Howie Mandel jokingly brought an oversized glass of beer to Keselowski at the champion's table at some point, telling him that would have a soothing effect.
Keselowski didn't take a sip. Instead, he just seemed to drink in the power of the moment — how he rose from a kid who feared his credit card would bounce when he checked into hotels while trying to build a fledgling career, to the top of the mountain on center stage.
There was an after-hours party, of course, and Keselowski made more or less a cameo appearance while posing for the perfunctory shots of scantily clad waitresses delivering yet another oversized bottle of champagne.
There will no doubt be more beer shots in Keselowski's future. That quirky spirit remains, evidenced by Keselowski urinating in the corner of a tent on the Vegas Strip before an event with the other top drivers.
He very much can be the new Earnhardt, minus the bad-boy mustache. He has the skills, and he has the attitude. He's got the power of Twitter on his side to reach a huge audience. But as he proved in Vegas, Keselowski knows that it isn't prudent to act like Bluto from Animal House 24-7.
He knows how to party like a champion.
And is wise enough to act like one.
Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org He is a regular contributor on the Joel Greenberg Show weekdays 4-6pm on 810 AM Yahoo! Sports Radio Orlando.