2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski recently announced that he will be leaving Team Penske for Roush Fenway Racing in 2022. Stepping out a top-running machine for a midfield runner seems a strange choice, but he has one crucial factor in his favour.
Attention turns to what comes after racing
After a steady fall in viewership over the end of the last decade, the NASCAR Cup Series is riding something of a wave in the second year of the 2020s.
Stock car racing has generally begun to transition away from its Deep South stereotypes, and to a position of promoting inclusion and equality within its own ranks.
Minorities generally adverse to NASCAR in decades past have been drawn towards it, with worldwide superstars Michael Jordan and Pitbull entering Cup this season as co-owners, of 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing, respectively.
Drivers, current and past, are beginning to turn their heads towards the business side of the championship too.
Denny Hamlin, (below) the triple Daytona 500 champion is Jordan’s co-owner at 23XI, while series icon Jeff Gordon has become Rick Hendrick’s effective second-in-command at his eponymous Hendrick Motorsports squad.
But one driver is taking an altogether different route.
Brad Keselowski is leaving series powerhouse Penske for a ride at midfield outfit Roush Fenway, who haven’t won a race since mid-2017.
Vacating a machine guaranteed to be at least in championship contention for one that barely struggles to break into the top 10 on a regular basis seems weird.
It doesn’t faze Keselowski however, who instead is looking to the last driver to commit to driver/owner as his blueprint for bringing RFR back to fighting for wins.
The part ownership ambitions of Keselowski in Cup have been well known for a long time.
But with Roger Penske not about to give away some of his team to an employee, after all, the 2012 champion was forced to look elsewhere.
“It’s quite a unique opportunity that really excites me,” he said.
“Ownership is something I think I’ve always articulated to the fans and media. It was important to me long-term.
“It represents growth for me personally and professionally, which is very important, and it creates a deeper tie-in to have a role in this sport when I’m done driving.
“In the NASCAR Hall of Fame, there’s a lot of the names that you see [that] are still involved in this sport in some way, shape or form past their driving career.
“There were a lot of opportunities that were thrown at me, whether it be by Team Penske or other teams, but not one of them held a candle to this one.
“I’m really excited about it. It was nothing short of a no-brainer for me to take this opportunity, and I know I have a lot of work in front of me.”
The legacy of Tony Stewart
Already a two-time champion with Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart took the plunge for 2009, forming up with Gene Haas to create Stewart-Haas Racing.
Before Stewart arrived, Haas CNC Racing had had a patchy record in Cup racing, recording zero wins, and generally making up the numbers.
But the fresh impetus of Stewart’s arrival drove the team forward to collect a batch of four wins in that debut season.
Just two years later in 2011, Stewart achieved a feat only comparable to Sir Jack Brabham’s 1966 Formula One title: he won the title in a car bearing his own name.
And Stewart’s record of success, and development is one that Keselowski is keen to learn from.
“What he did over there was amazing and I don’t know if he’s ever gotten the credit that he rightfully deserves,” explains the Michigan native.
“He took that company that had never won a race and, again, in two-and-a-half to three years time won a championship with it. That was so impressive.
“This team, I think, is quite a bit ahead of that position that Tony entered, so I don’t think it would be as tough of a road – and of course the NextGen reset and all those things should certainly play a factor in it, but one of the key things is Tony did an amazing job of bringing in key talent.
“I think we’re always looking at talent. Things will change. Teams change.
“Companies change over time and people go different places and things like that happen.
“I think our eyes and ears are open as talent becomes available at all times, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to have an influx of talent with this announcement.
NextGen offers biggest chance
The importance of the point Keselowski mentioned about the “NextGen reset” cannot be stressed enough.
Delayed a year by the pandemic, NextGen is the new car being introduced into Cup for the 2022 season.
It has been designed and developed to reduce running costs, close the field and attract new manufacturers – a long held desire of NASCAR.
Reason and logic dictates that a bigger outfit like Penske will get on top of the new package before Roush, but it is challenge that excites Keselowski.
“There’s a workload associated with it that, honestly, I’m excited about. The reconciliation is certainly there, but I think with the Next Gen car that’s gonna make that a heck of a lot easier,” he says.
“Ultimately it’s going to come down to three things – resources, people and processes.
“The resources are always shifting. The Next Gen car represents that shift, so there’s a little bit of a level set there.
“The people are always changing and growing, and we’ll continue to work through that.
“We want to build a culture that has successful processes, so all those things have to come together to be an elite team.
“I know nothing happens overnight with respect to making the performance where we want it to be.
“But if ever there was the landscape to expedite that process, this is it.”
Now or never
Finding the Penske ownership door firmly locked, and wanting to secure his legacy, Keselowski has made the right choice, in theroy.
One advantage he has is that he is not changing manufacturer going from Penske to Roush.
Both run Ford Mustang machinery, so the 35-time race winner will be aware of how the Mustang is faring in testing, compared to the Chevrolet Camaro or Toyota’s Camry.
The new car, with, among other things, its radical new rear suspension setup, will be a big challenge for even the likes of Penske, Hendrick or Gibbs to master.
Thus it makes sense to switch teams now, as opposed to a year down the line when knowledge has already been baked into how a team operates its cars.
Keselowski also brings another thing to Roush: consistency.
Although the equipment isn’t first-rate current drivers Ryan Newman (who’s #6 Keselowski will take over) and Chris Buescher have been inconsistent.
At the wheel of the Penske flagship #2, Keselowski has a habit of churning out top 10 results.
Indeed, in his 420 starts in Penske machinery, he has a remarkable top 10 conversation rate, claiming 215 top 10s.
That is the kind of consistency Roush has been craving, and if he can translate that to his new team, the footing it will provide will be immeasurable.
One of few
It is not uncommon for Cup drivers to field outfits in the third-level Truck Series that often supports the main event.
Keselowski has done it himself, before the team shut in 2017.
Of all the drivers in NASCAR, it is he who is best equipped to take on the responsibilities of driver/owner.
Keselowski to Roush might not be a success, but the ingredients are coming together to let have the potential to do so.
If it does come together, Keselowski will make a big success out of the move, of that there can be no doubt.