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Bespoke’s Norman talks Sprint Chase with USA Today

By Jeff Gluck USA Today

The director and crew had the camera ready. A few feet away, NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 car provided a perfect backdrop. There was only one problem. The ‘X’ marking the spot where an actor needed to stand had no one on it.

Everyone was waiting on Keselowski, who was supposed to film his first scene in a faux movie trailer for manufacturer Ford — a video in which he’d channel the lead role from Patton.Instead, the driver/star of Brad was standing to the side, giving a lesson in military history.

“Do you know much about Patton?” he said. “I’m serious, you’ve got to read about Patton.”

It’s fitting that Keselowski chose Patton in promoting Year 2 of the redesigned Chase for the Sprint Cup. NASCAR bills its playoff as a battle among 16 driver nations in a four-round, 10-race, elimination-style format that kicks off Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

And the 31-year-old was the centerpiece of several skirmishes last year. There were the post-race hijinks at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, followed by a between-haulers mugging from Matt Kenseth. Then there was the controversial restart at Texas Motor Speedway where Keselowski’s move cut Jeff Gordon’s tire, leading to a pit road brawl. And that was the prelude to a four-driver finale that saw Kevin Harvick claim his first Cup title by just one position over winless Ryan Newman.

The combination of drama and on-track excitement — three races were won by drivers who faced win-or-else scenarios — made the revamped format designed to inject the “Game 7” quality sought by NASCAR chairman Brian France a success.

Now the question facing NASCAR is this: Can the 2015 version of the Chase live up to the inaugural edition?

“The intensity all comes down really to desperation,” Keselowski told USA TODAY Sports shortly after the regular season ended at Richmond International Raceway. “When guys get desperate, they take chances they normally wouldn’t take and it opens up your odds of something dramatic happening.

“I’m hoping we’re not in that position,” he added with a laugh.

But even if it’s not Keselowski, it will be someone. It’s practically guaranteed under the playoff format, which features three points resets (four if you count the start of the Chase), three eliminations and the four-driver championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It has the makings of that happening again,” Gordon said. “Certainly when you take four all the way down to Homestead (and) reset, just that in itself, I think, ‘Wow, what drama.’ It’s going to be amazing again and I love this format because of that.”

The general of Brad Nation

Keselowski stands in front of a Ford Nation banner to address his troops on the No. 2 team, reminiscent of the Oscar-winning film’s scene in which George C. Scott, who portrayed Patton, gave his speech with an American flag in the background.

“I want you to remember, no team has ever won the championship being content with a second-place finish,” Keselowski tells his team in the Brad trailer. “You win a championship by making the other team content with a second-place finish.”

Later, between takes, the driver grins as he pulls out his iPhone to show a reporter similar dialogue from the film, which ranks among his favorites.

The similarities go beyond just scripted lines. Keselowski has been described as unconventional and unorthodox, a man who does things his own way and makes no apologies. The Michigan native can be a bit difficult; he was raised to be a man’s man and a fighter and doesn’t mind being blunt. But his affable nature and warm, conversational style offset the times when he seems demanding.

One scene in the video calls for Keselowski to wear an open-faced racing helmet — the closest thing to one of Patton’s Army helmets a driver could wear. But he nixes it when the prop shows up for the scene. “I’m sorry, but that’s cheesy as hell,” he says.

In another scene, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are arguing as the sun beats down on the pavement behind the expansive Team Penske shop. Wolfe’s data says one thing about setting up the car, but Keselowski disagrees. “You don’t know when to shut up!” Wolfe says loudly.

His words hang in the air for a moment, a bit of tension between the duo who won the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship. Suddenly, both men burst into laughter. It’s only pretend, after all. But judging by how much Wolfe is relishing his role — he can barely say his lines without a smile — it might not be too far off from real life.

“This is a little bit of therapy, I think,” Keselowski says.

Keselowski has been known to get on the nerves of more people than just his crew chief. He became a villain in the eyes of many fans last year when he clashed with veteran drivers in the Chase, particularly after his daring move at Texas ended in a bad result for Gordon — something Keselowski refused to apologize for.

But drivers said they aren’t worried about Keselowski in particular this year because any of them could find themselves in a similar situation.

“I know Brad Keselowski is going to be wild and he’s always up on the wheel,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. told USA TODAY Sports. “If he’s got a great car, he’s going to aggravate some people with it. But we’ve all got that in us; he just had the car to do it at that particular time.”

Kyle Busch, who wouldn’t surprise anyone by playing the role of agitator this year, said there were “a few guys out there that could be that thorn.”

“Everybody has that opportunity when you push a little bit harder when it comes down to crunch time, especially in those transfer races,” he said. “When you’re desperate, you do all you can.”

Drama building

During some downtime in filming, Keselowski invites a reporter into his office to watch more of Patton on his iPhone. The office, just off a main hallway at Penske, often serves as a transition area for his recent trophies (a jukebox he won at the Kentucky Speedway Xfinity Series race is there but will soon move to his house).

But one trophy won’t leave the office: His Goodyear gold car, which is presented to the series champion each year.

Keselowski has room for another, but he has plenty of competition willing to fight him for it.

Moments after NASCAR’s regular season ended at Richmond International Raceway,Carl Edwards stood on pit road and broke into a cautious smile.

“It feels like things are a little too calm,” he said. “Now there are going to be 16 guys who have a shot to win the championship and we are all extremely competitive, so this is going to be interesting.”

Indeed, the first 26 races of 2015 lacked the nail-biting racing and tension among drivers that keeps fans interested and TV remotes on tabletops. But as Earnhardt noted, the 2014 regular season was somewhat similar until the playoff began. And then? Fireworks.

“That (stuff) at the end of last year came out of nowhere, right?” Earnhardt said. “So we’ll just have to see. I’m sure there will be some fenders rubbed and some guys upset before it’s over with. If it doesn’t happen in the first three or four weeks, I wouldn’t get too worried.”

In 2014, the Homestead race — which featured Harvick, Newman, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin vying for the title — was the most-viewed since Edwards and Tony Stewart’s classic battle in 2011, which Stewart won on a tie-breaker. Social media conversation about the Chase rose 54% from the same 10 races in 2013, according to NASCAR.

Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer and a senior vice president, acknowledged many people have said, “Hey, I’m not sure how we’re going to replicate that (drama) in ‘15.”

“I think the beauty of the format is it’s going to happen anyway,” he said. “With the elimination, the reset as you head from the different rounds, I think the opportunity for us to have fantastic storylines year after year works very well with this format.”

There is one change this season: NBC Sports has taken over this portion of the schedule from ABC/ESPN, and that comes with a renewed marketing push. For example, NBC promoted the Chase opener during Sunday Night Football last week.

NBC Sports analyst and former Cup driver Kyle Petty said the format proved itself last year, which surprised him, considering he was “straight up a non-believer.”

“I said, ‘How can you run a full year and it comes down to winner-take-all? Why don’t they just cut a deck of cards and the high card wins?’ ” he told USA TODAY Sports. “But the Homestead race was phenomenal because you had those four guys. You’re going to have good years and bad years, but I think this year will match last year.”

The Chase has been around since 2004, but not in its current state. Initially, the standings were reset at the start of the playoff and drivers had 10 weeks to accumulate the most points. That often meant several drivers were virtually eliminated after a few weeks and the finale would come down to two or three drivers — if that.

But that can’t happen in this Chase by its very nature, and its success means everyone in the NASCAR industry benefits — from the sanctioning body to fans to sponsors.

“The new Chase format created appointment viewing opportunities, especially in threshold rounds,” said Jonathan Norman, vice president of strategic planning at the Charlotte-based Bespoke Sports & Entertainment agency. “It became survive-and-advance, which is must-see TV. From a marketing standpoint, I believe it drew incredible talk value both among core NASCAR fans and competitive sports fans, and also brought increased visibility to the sport. That’s always good for business.”

But the success of this year’s Chase is going to depend on a lot more than Keselowski riling his competitors. And though it’s impossible to predict what will happen, sequels often don’t live up to the original.

“It’s gonna be tough, man,” Earnhardt said. “It’s like making a hell of a hit record and trying to come out with another one. It’s a bit of a curse, I suppose. But whether I’m in the battle or not, it’ll be fun to watch from my perspective.”

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