Brad Keselowski was in this scenario before. Last year, he spent much of the season as a free agent at years end. It took until August for he and Team Penske to finally sign a deal. Keselowski, vowed to not let his contract talk become a distraction to he nor his team. They’re all professionals and he didn’t feel like they could let his future get in their way.
It ended up working out. Keselowski, got a new deal and the team marched all the way to the Championship 4.
Here we are again. Keselowski elected for another one year deal as contract talks were in place again. This time though, the future likely wouldn’t involve Penske. Rumors started swirling in late spring that Keselowski would actually leave the team and join Roush Fenway Racing as not only a driver but also a part owner.
Neither side would discuss that plan. In fact, Penske has said all along that he had hoped to bring Keselowski back. Penske said back in March that he and Brad have talked before and that they’re moving in the right direction.
“There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew for sure,” Penske continued regarding Keselowski’s status in the spring. “I guess it’s just a matter of us sitting down and putting it together, but with everybody not being able to move around you don’t do that over the phone and you don’t do it by Zoom, so we want to do that face-to-face with all of them.”
Penske admitted on Thursday afternoon that he offered Keselowski a two year deal last year but Keselowski declined. He had hoped to work out another 2-3 year extension this year for him in the new contract talks but Keselowski’s future was in ownership and Penske couldn’t offer that to him.
A month later, rumors hit that Keselowski was leaving. He found a suitor – Roush Fenway Racing. They had an option for Keselwoski to not only buy in, but to race for them too.
There’s no hard feelings though between the two sides. Penske gave Keselowski his blessing and said that the two will remain good friends past this too.
Keselowski, is the all-time winningest driver at Team Penske with 67 trips to victory lane. He’s had 34 a piece in Cup with them and 33 in Xfinity competition. He won the 2012 championship with them and hasn’t skipped a beat much since.
The Michigan native won four times a year ago with 24 top 10’s in 36 starts. That helped him march all the way to the Championship 4.
Prior to the rumors surfacing, Keselowski had a solid start to the year. He had five top fives in the first 11 races including a win. Everything seemed Keselowski then would be back. I then got wind around the time of his Talladega victory that he could bolt for RFR. It wasn’t enough to report on it yet. In Mid-May, those things I was hearing grew louder and several big named outlets starting reporting on it.
That’s also around the time that his stats starting taking a decline with the team. From the report in Mid-May through now, NASCAR has ran nine races. Keselowski, has one top five and just two top 10’s in that timeframe.
Now the news it out there that the relationship won’t go on past this Fall. Keselowski’s future is now all but certain to be going to RFR in that rumored role we’ve all heard back in late spring. The main question now is, can the two sides get their season back on track?
Last year, the writing was on the wall that Keselowski would return to it was easy to not let his future be a distraction. This year, you can tell it may have been a distraction in the sense the performance went down once the rumors got louder that he wouldn’t be back. It could be completely circumstantial, but it’s also worth noting.
Now the rumors were true and it’s out in the open, is it going to be difficult to turn it around? Do they spend time working on improvement with he and this car when a new car comes out next year and he won’t be in it?
Penske and Keselowski both have said that the ultimate goal this season is to still win a championship and despite this news, that doesn’t change. Penske said Keselowski will be allowed in the competition meetings still and that he won’t hide any information from him just because he’s leaving.
Now, does it hurt his performance for the final 15 races of the season though? How hard is it going to be to turn this performance around?
He and his other two current teammates have all said that they’re lacking in speed right now.
“Our guys had a great day on pit road and we had a great day on restarts. We just needed a little more speed,” Keselowski said just last weekend after the race in Atlanta.
Here’s what Joey Logano said, “We weren’t bad today overall from a handing perspective, I’d say we just lacked some overall speed.”
What about Ryan Blaney?
“It was a long day of working on our race car and finally at the end we got going a little bit better,” he said. I was super tight all day and couldn’t really do anything. We still didn’t really get it to where we needed at the end, but, overall, not a bad day for our group.
“We’ve still got to find a little bit of speed, though. … I definitely think we’ve got to find some speed. None of us have won a race in a while and, honestly, we haven’t really been leading laps and running up front. We’ve been lacking, so we’re getting better, that’s for sure. It’s just little, tiny baby steps. I want to be winning races next week. I want us to make huge gains, but that’s not what this game is anymore. It’s tiny, little things that you find over weeks and weeks and apply them. I think we’re heading in the right direction, but we still got a little bit to go.”
There’s a theme there. Keselowski is gone at the end of the year. How hard do they want to work with him to find that missing speed? You can tell something is missing on the 2 car and it all started when the rumors surfaced. Now the rumors are proven to be true and confirmed. What happens next?
Also, why does Keselowski want an ownership role so bad? Well, look no further as to what his comments were last year.
In late July, 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.