A look at why the Penske/Wood Brothers moves happened, why Penske is now set up for the future and what this means for Toyota

We had two big announcements on Thursday morning. One was expected, the other was sort of a surprise. Team Penske beat Brad Keselowski to the news in announcing that they have signed Austin Cindric to drive the No. 2 Ford in 2022 and saying that Keselowski will be out at seasons end.

That’s the expected news. The one that wasn’t so much was that Harrison Burton will now replace Cindric at the Wood Brothers in the seat of the No. 21 Ford despite Cindric not ever having driven a race for them.

Say, what?

Yes, the path for Cindric has been known for quite a while now. With Team Penske having Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano locked up long term now and the hopes of Keselowski finishing out his career with them, their plan for Cindric was to house him with the Wood Brothers while Keselowski kept the seat warm of the 2 car.

With Keselowski’s new plan surfacing in late spring that he would leave Penske and pursue a part time ownership role with Roush Fenway Racing as well as drive for them too, it left an opening with the team all the sudden.

With the 2 car eventually going to be for Cindric anyways, why not go ahead and put him in that ride now? Why delay the inevitable?

So, that’s exactly what they did. That left the 21 ride in turn open and a lot of people just expected the team to keep Matt DiBenedetto in it for a third season. Instead, they signed Harrison Burton.

How did all of this happen? Well, lets take a deeper dive.

Penske had hoped the original plan was going to still stick. The thing is, he had known for a while now that Keselowski wanted an ownership role within the team. Penske also let Keselowski know that with how all of his businesses are set up, it wasn’t in the cards to just add him to a front office role of that nature.

Keselowski, was set to hit the open market once the 2020 season ended and was free to look elsewhere. Penske offered a two year deal but also allowed Keselowski to look around for a driver/owner role if he could find one. At this point a year ago, Keselowski didn’t and so he signed a one, not two, year deal to come back to Team Penske for the 2021 season.

That allowed the two sides to negotiate again. Keselowski still wanted an ownership role. Penske still couldn’t make that happen. Penske, wanted Keselowski for another 2-3 years still but Keselowski wanted to look for his future as an owner still. He went shopping around and found something with Roush Fenway Racing.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 07: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 07, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Keselowski, went back to Penske to tell him what he found and Penske gave him his blessing to go for it and to allow his current contract to run out at seasons end.

As to why Keselowski wants an ownership role so bad? Well, look no further as to what his comments were last year.

In late July of 2020, Keselowski noted that the pay to play drivers are ruining the market for the seasoned veterans. It cost him in free agency to return. With a chance now to control his future, this was as good a time as ever to get into the ownership fray.

As costs to operating a Cup team grow and the sponsorship dollars shrinking, its causing a shift in business models. No longer is just one or even two sponsors needed for an entire Cup season. The days of that are unfortunately long gone. Now, you need to piece the 36 races together by several companies.

When Keselowski came to Penske, he took over a car mainly donned by Miller Lite. Now, there’s several sponsors for Keselowski during the course of a season.

So, in order to sign Keselowski to what he deserves, the team needs high sponsorship dollars.

Hence a big pay cut or an incentive based pay that he had to take on. That hurts drivers like Keselowski who know they are worth millions and know they actually deserve a raise and not a demotion. How can one willingly make $10 million, again just a made up number here, be a championship contender each year and win multiple races in a season, then take a huge pay cut to continue on? Shouldn’t they deserve a raise?

On top of that, the landscape is changing because drivers want top rides still and some are not only saying that they’ll drive for far less, they even bring money via a sponsor too.

That hurts the value of the top end free agents like Keselowski.

“It’s certainly been much different than years previous in my career,” said Keselowski of silly season last year. “Nobody likes it. There’s nobody really winning, I can tell you that. You try to keep perspective.

“I still have a great job. A lot of people don’t have a job at all. I don’t think what they want to do is hear me whine about mine.

“But then again, I do recognize if my contract had fallen differently, I would probably be in a much better place with respect to when it ran out time-wise. It’s part of it.

“The landscape is very strange, not just because of the virus, but I think one of the things that really stands out that’s changed the landscape is the threshold or the bar, so to speak, you have to pass as a driver to be eligible for the Cup Series. It’s been lowered significantly since I’ve been a part of the sport.

“That’s starting to bring a wave of kind of paid drivers, so to speak, drivers that pay for their ride. That really does a lot of damage to the contract market when there’s drivers out there that are willing to pay for your ride, let alone you getting paid. They’re willing to pay to take your ride. That really changes the marketplace pretty dramatically. So that’s been part of it, too.

“But all in all, again, I’m thankful to have a spot in the sport. Hoping it will last for a long time. If it doesn’t, I know I did all I could do.”

With an opportunity to stay with Ford, still be able to drive and now control his own market and his own future destiny, it seemed like a good time to take the chance and leave Penske for RFR.

This all hit in late spring. That then forced Penske to take an inventory on what to do about the 2 car. He had Cindric sitting there. It didn’t take him long to figure out that just move Cindric over to replace Keselowski and then try and figure something out with the Wood Brothers.

Penske told me on Thursday that the Wood Brothers bring a ton of value to him and that he foresees their relationship going on for a long future. So, with that said, what do they do about a driver for the 21 now?

Penske’s organization was now set. He had three drivers locked in and an Xfinity Series team he wants to keep around to help with the Cup side and feels like they could even use that car to put all three of his Cup drivers in next year for information.

Was DiBenedetto in the running to just stay in the 21? Turns out, he wasn’t.

DiBenedetto said to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he didn’t find out until 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday night that he wouldn’t be back in the 21 car for 2022 and that he was very upset with this process. What made it hard is that he felt like they have finally turned the corner with the team as they weren’t clicking until they made the crew chief change in June. Now that they have, they’ve taken off and are as good as they’ve even been. Now, he doesn’t get to see it through.

“It’s alright to be angry. We’re all human beings and we’re all flawed and messed up. We all have our battles. Everyone does,” he said in a near 10 minute video shared by himself on his social media accounts.

“I’m super appreciative for the opportunity, appreciative that we have a good chunk of season left to kick butt and just know that I’m here to win in the Cup Series. I’m going to, through all the heartache, all the frustration, all the obstacles, all the craziness of what I told you about with our team not being where it needs to be, all this stuff, I don’t care, I’m going to overcome all of that.

“I will, and we are going to win. I know and I feel confident that we are in the best position ever finally to go out and do that, and my future is going to be full of that. We’re going to have success. I’m here to do that. I will die before I ever give up. I don’t care what obstacles are thrown at me.

“I appreciate all of you guys being in this journey with me, through it every step of the way, through every bit of the heartbreak, all of this and going through the emotional roller coaster with me, all the support you guys have given me because this has been one hell of a freaking ride.

“So, yeah, that is what it is. Why would I say that I’m upset and it sucks? Well, obviously, I don’t know what I’m doing next year.”

What makes it harder is that they finally started to turn the corner. It was a rough start to the 2021 season and he wishes that they made a crew chief change sooner now.

“Why would I have these emotions? Because I was so freaking lucky and still am to be driving the 21 car,” DiBenedetto continued. “Love it, and I want to get that 100th win for them bad. But this 21 team has also been broken for a while; tried to give the benefit of the doubt, work through it, give all your effort to it, try and make it work and make it click, and it wasn’t, and I’ve said it for a long time: Our team wasn’t clicking. That’s no disrespect to anyone, no particular person. It just wasn’t working. Weren’t executing.

“I’ll be the first to say before everybody, performance wasn’t where it needed to be. We’d have some speed and some good runs and finish second, and this and that, have speed, but it just wasn’t clicking. It’s like a relationship with your wife or your friends or family, relationship with your team. It wasn’t there; it wasn’t working.

“It took too long, and we finally shook things up. I care about people a lot, sometimes to a fault, and let me tell you … your biggest regret in life will be wasting time. Time is the one thing you can’t get back in life. That’s kind of what’s biting me right now. We wasted some time, and I’ll take some of the blame for it; it’s not just one particular person. … We let our team be broken for too long.”

On Wednesday, DiBenedetto spoke on this too saying that he was super appreciative for(Greg Erwin) and what he’s done for the Wood Brothers for years, but that the team wasn’t clicking and he felt it.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t feel like we were gonna win. We were not a winning team. The dynamic wasn’t there. We weren’t meshing. It’s all about relationships and it just wasn’t there, and then we make this change, which is so hard.

“You empathize with people. I care about people, but, at the end of the day, I have to do my job and we all worked hard, talked and made this change to have Jonathan Hassler on the box … Then it’s like, boom, we click and we’re rocking and rolling and running up front, leading laps, top 10s, contending and we’re just getting better and better, and we’re just getting started together.”

The only problem is, was the move made too late?

“Not a situation that we want to be in but that’s out of our control,” he continued. “No sense putting our energy into that. Just focus on the positives. No. 1, we’re the best we’ve ever been as a team. Our team has clicked to a level that it never has. Jonathan Hassler, since he’s taken over, our whole team has just clicked very fast. We’re working together very well. We’re executing. It’s showing. Since he’s stepped in it’s showing every week. We’re the strongest than we’ve ever been. I’m thankful for the team and for everybody for working through the entire process and the results are showing.”

He’s not wrong in that aspect. He had a top 10 car in Nashville before some bad luck. He’s had two straight top 10 finishes on the season entering Sunday’s race and feels like they’re close.

“The cool part is that we are showing that we have made good efforts to make our 21 team better and that we’re here to win, and the proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We’re now performing, running up front, leading laps. We’ve turned this whole program around.

“It’s clicking and all these things, so that does nothing but just help my situation moving forward, showing that we have the ability to go out there and contend for wins.”

As to his plans for next season now, it would be up to God he says but his gut tells him he’s not going back to Trucks or Xfinity for a year.

In terms of why Burton over DiBenedetto, Eddie Wood said that they all sat down with Penske, themselves and Ford to look at who would be best in the 21 car. They planned for Cindric but with Keselowski leaving, it changed things.

With a new car coming out next year, they wanted to just go with a younger driver since it’s a fresh slate for everyone and Burton’s name came up then. With his family history in the sport and his talent level, this was their best option they felt moving forward as they expect Burton to be their long term driver for the future of this team.

Burton, said that he didn’t know the full time line as his dad is his acting manager and they sought Jeff Burton out to talk about Harrison and if he’d be interested in a move over first. Jeff Burton then went to Harrison Burton to talk to him about it and Burton said that the move was a no brainer.

As to why he left Toyota for this ride, Burton said that, “I don’t really think anything Toyota did or didn’t do influenced my decision,” Burton said. “This was just the best decision for me.”

As to why Burton and why now?

“With the Next Gen being a blank sheet of paper, that is one reason it’s a good time to start with someone new,” said Wood. “Even if you’re a veteran, you’re really not going to have a lot on a rookie. Everyone is starting at the same place.”

Plus, it makes sense in the standpoint that Burton brings with him Dex Imaging, a long time sponsor for him as the company also has sponsorship ties to Penske too. Also, it solidifies Penske’s future in now having 31 year old Joey Logano, 27 year old Ryan Blaney, 22 year old Cindric and 20 year old Burton locked up.

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 06: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 06, 2021 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

So, off Keselowski goes to a soon to be announced deal with RFR as Penske said that he and Brad will forever be friends and there’s no hard feelings at all over this move and their dealings. It’s business he says.

Now, Penske will then join Hendrick Motorsports with bright futures as all four HMS drivers are 28 or younger. Both Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson are 28, Chase Elliott is only 25 with William Byron being just 23.

Stewart-Haas Racing has also gone younger with having Cole Custer (23) as a rookie last year and current rookie Chase Briscoe (26) in a car now. Kevin Harvick will be there through 2023 but with the 10 car potentially open at seasons end, they have a potential to get another younger driver as well.

Which bodes the question, what can Toyota do? They lost out on a younger driver to Cup again. They already lost out on Larson and Byron, had Erik Jones but didn’t have room for him to stay, lost Noah Gragson to JR Motorsports and others. Burton is just the latest casualty.

See, Toyota runs a different business model than the other manufacturers. They get scrutinized a lot but they’re also showing that it works.

Toyota won nine times in 2020 and put Denny Hamlin in the Championship 4. In 2019, they won 19 times and had three drivers in the final round including a championship by Kyle Busch. In 2018, they won 13 times. In fact, from 2012 through 2019, they had won at least 10 races seven times in the eight year span.

The thing with them is, they really only had four Cup rides to put their drivers in. They tried to expand with Furniture Row Racing but while that worked for a while, it faded with FRR closing their doors. Leavine Family Racing tried it in 2019 but they folded after the 2020 season. Now, it’s 23XI Racing’s turn. They’re wanting to expand to a second full time car for 2022 which would give Toyota six cars in Cup.

The problem is, Ford and Chevrolet has so much more and a lot more real estate to place younger drivers in. Toyota’s business model doesn’t but Toyota also spends a lot on younger drivers from the dirt ranks to Trucks to Xfinity where Ford and Chevrolet don’t.

It’s two-fold.

Toyota gives them the resources to compete at a high level quick and if you don’t win right off the bat, someone else will. Their only issue is, they’ve not really given the younger drivers that can succeed much room to grow in Cup.

JGR is full. Kyle Busch (36) isn’t going anywhere. 40 year old Denny Hamlin and 41 year old Martin Truex Jr. aren’t either. Why would they? Why would JGR or Toyota want to push them out? All three have contracts in place for the team past this season and I’d expect them to be back not only in 2022 but 2023 as well. So would Christopher Bell. He’s shown to be their future and is only 26.

So, for drivers like Burton or anyone else, what’s their path? When you get a job opportunity in Cup, you take it.

Bubba Wallace will be back with 23XI and he’s only 27. If the team expands, it’s likely that they’ll put Kurt Busch in the second car. That’s why I think Burton decided to bolt for the deal with Ford and the Wood Brothers/Penske.

It’s clear Ty Gibbs is the future for the 20 car in Xfinity and with Kyle Busch not racing in the series next season, they can keep Brandon Jones in the 19 and if Daniel Hemric wants to return, let him stay in the 18. The only issue is, the path for Jones and Hemric to move up to Cup seems to be low.

Gibbs is likely next in line to move up to Cup in the Toyota camp. I’d say John Hunter Nemechek is behind him.

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