NASCAR drivers talk about social media

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It took just one photo of an exploded jet dryer truck for NASCAR to blow up on Twitter.

Brad Keselowski's photo posted from his car during the red-flag delay of the 2012 Daytona 500 was the spark NASCAR needed to make social media a fully integrated part of its marketing and communications plan. NASCAR officials considered punishing Keselowski the day after the race for his in-car tweet, but abandoned that route after gauging the overwhelming positive public response to the eventual NASCAR Sprint Cup champion's post.

Within hours of his fiery tweet, Keselowski had gained more than 135,000 fans on Twitter. “When it comes to moments like that, they really are only cool because they are authentic ... new, fresh and not forced," Keselowski said on NASCAR media day when Playbook asked about his social media exploits.

He will begin defending his Sprint Cup championship with a Twitter fan base of more than 368,000. "When that moment happened at Daytona, I just did it. I thought it was something different and wanted to take a picture of it and send it out. If I tried to calculate that, I never could in a million years," Keselowski said. "I had no idea that the race would be red-flagged for a fire, and that it wouldn’t be my car, but a car in the distance and a huge explosion. You can’t plan those things. What you can do is put yourself in a position to showcase how you feel."

There's always a risk that social media content can backfire, especially in his case. "That same moment could have easily been a moment where I got in trouble or the fans thought it was stupid," Keselowski said. "You never know how people would react to it. When you do things out of that spot in your heart and mind that are authentic, it showcases who you are and what you think is cool. Other people appreciate that.”

Keselowski follows fewer than 100 Twitter feeds. To earn one of those coveted follows, his rules are simple: "Be relevant or funny.”

While there were plans to expand NASCAR's social media before the 2012 season, it was Keselowski's photo and his impromptu fan chat afterward that fired up NASCAR on Twitter. Keselowski's tweet at the Daytona 500 was third on Mashable’s list of the 13 biggest social media moments in sports in 2012. NASCAR enters 2013 with a much larger and better-coordinated social media presence than it had a year ago after experiencing substantial growth since the start of last season. "What Brad did was a big help for us," NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations Steve O’Donnell told Playbook.

The official @NASCAR feed has just over 900,000 followers today, adding more than a half-million -- a 265 percent increase -- in the past 13 months. @NASCAR entered 2012 with 339,347 followers, gaining about 300,000 in the previous year. NASCAR took over that feed in 2010 when it had just 8,000 fans.

NASCAR has a much larger footprint on Facebook than on Twitter, with more than 3.275 million likes on its official Facebook page. That represents a 36 percent increase in the past year. NASCAR took over operation of the page in mid-2012 from Turner Sports. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also chosen to be on the cover of "NASCAR The Game: Inside Line" via an online tournament that drew more than 750,000 votes on Facebook.

O'Donnell, who has been at the forefront of the sport's social media push and caught some static after Keselowski was fined $25,000 after posting a tweet from his car during a red-flag stop in Phoenix, said social media isn't a mandate for Sprint Cup drivers, but rather strongly encouraged.

"Most of our drivers are very active. We have a minimum number of drivers, athletes, compared to other sports. So we ask our drivers to do more," O'Donnell said. "We explain to them the benefits of using it to connect with fans, build their brand and attract sponsorship."

O'Donnell said drivers who use profanity or derogatory language on social media will face fines and punishment on a case-by-case basis. "We have fined people in the past. We've had the private fines, which we've gone away from," he said. "But if we saw something that crossed the line or went too far, we'd do something." NASCAR also removes fan posts containing vulgar or offensive language from its Facebook page.

Kurt Busch, no stranger to controversies surrounding profanity during and after races, said he doesn't envision a time when he'd ever use that type of language on Twitter. "When you're typing, you have a lot of time to think about it," he said. "Common sense has to play the lead role. There [are] situations that can get you excited, but it's a matter of just playing the right role as an entity for everybody to view and to watch."

Drivers like Busch said they see plenty of benefits to using social media on the giving and receiving end. "You get the beat on the street. The heartbeat and the thoughts. It seems that everything these days is 'jury by public opinion,' and so you can go on there and get a pretty good answer. The feedback [positive and negative] affects me, sure,” he said.

Trying to move past some of the confusion from last season, O'Donnell spelled out NASCAR's policy when it comes to posting social media content during races. "If it's under red-flag conditions and the drivers are out of their cars, or if they're in Victory Lane and someone hands them a phone, they can do it," he said. "Our challenge is there can be a competitive advantage with some of the apps out there."

Keselowski said concerns about handheld devices in cars and the advantages of special racing apps are somewhat overblown, and that taking phones out of the cars eliminates the potential for unscripted moments.

“It was a bit self-policing because how are you going to hold your phone when you are driving? Sure there was potential to crack some new app or whatever, but the reality of that is you could do that right now and not get caught if you just didn’t use Twitter," he said. "Everyone else in the field could have their phone in the car and just not be showcasing that they are using it, and do all those things that NASCAR is worried about. I think it is more about trying to set a public statement than any impact that the phone actually has.”

O'Donnell said NASCAR is working with Sprint on digital dashboard technology that would allow drivers to send messages, photos and video directly without using a handheld device. "Our end goal is that Brad can press a button and it goes to Facebook, goes to Twitter, and he's talking to the fans during a race," he said. "We're hoping to build a system similar to what's in your car. It's something we could be announcing in the next 12 months."

NASCAR took over the NASCAR.com domain from Turner on Jan. 1, allowing the sport to have a cohesive, digital home for its message. "In the past, it was all over the place," O'Donnell said.

On Tuesday, NASCAR unveiled a branding push that features nine new commercials in both English and Spanish that will begin airing Sunday during the Daytona 500 on Fox. Two of the spots ("Twist" and "Rivals") were posted on NASCAR's YouTube channel, which has more than 8,800 subscribers and 2.438 million views.

The #NASCAR hashtag is used throughout the year to highlight preferred content. In 2012, there were more than 2.48 million tweets using #NASCAR by roughly 297,000 users, according to Tweetreach figures. The #NASCARPrimetime hashtag was used for select night races throughout 2012 and reached 3.67 million people.

Data-shifting has evolved within NASCAR. It now operates a social media "Fan Engagement Center" at its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., using technology developed with Hewlett-Packard to follow driver and sponsor mentions, along with related trends, during races. "If a sponsor puts something out, we can tell them if it got coverage in Seattle," O'Donnell said.

Sunday, that Fan Engagement Center will no doubt be buzzing with mentions of Danica Patrick (@DanicaPatrick), who became the first woman to win a pole in Sprint Cup qualifying on Sunday. Another trending topic for NASCAR entering the 2013 season remains the burgeoning romance between Patrick and two-time defending Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Both are Sprint Cup rookies this season.

Not only is Patrick starting in the No. 1 spot Sunday (barring a wreck in practice on in the Duels on Thursday), she also leads the NASCAR pack on Twitter, with more than 717,000 followers, which is nearly twice as many as Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb - 362,000-plus) or Jimmie Johnson (@Jimmie Johnson - 372,000-plus).

Patrick has 318,000 Facebook fans and an 85 Klout score. Klout measures social media influence on a scale from 1-100. (President Obama's Klout score is 99.) Johnson, with 661,000 Facebook followers and Gordon, with 509,000 backers on Facebook, each have a Klout score of 88, tops among NASCAR drivers. NASCAR’s combined Twitter and Facebook presence gives it a 92 Klout score, just one point behind Justin Bieber.

Not every Sprint Cup driver has embraced Twitter. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s official Facebook page has more than 1.4 million likes, but his official Twitter @DaleJr feed has more than 173,000 followers who are waiting to read his first tweet.

Earnhardt and JR Motorsports launched "The Dale Jr. Download" on Monday, a radio-style podcast available on DaleJr.com and iTunes. Earnhardt sees this as his version of Twitter. "It's definitely something I'm comfortable doing," he said. "I'll be in and out, physically in and out, of the broadcast. We can talk about literally everything."

And he'll get to do it a little more than 140 characters at a time.

Bill Speros is an ESPN.com contributor. He can be reached on Twitter @billsperos or via e-mail at bsperos1@gmail.com.