Brad Keselowski’s long speculated future is now known. See, rumors started surfacing this past spring that the Michigan native wouldn’t come back to Team Penske in 2022. Instead, he would buy into Roush Fenway Racing and join their organization as a driver/part owner. As crazy as that rumor sounded, it turned out to be 100% true.
No one really denied the claim and by time we got into summer, the deal was no longer speculation but a matter on when it would get announced. Team Penske and the Wood Brothers announced their deals last Thursday in that Penske will moved Austin Cindric over to in house to replace Keselowski in the No. 2 Ford for ’22 and beyond while Harrison Burton would then move up from the Xfinity Series to replace Cindric in the No. 21 Ford at the Wood Brothers.
Neither side wanted to break Keselowski’s news for him as we were told a status regarding his future would be coming soon. Now, it’s out there with Tuesday’s unveiling.
The elephant in the room now though is, why make this move? Why do it now?
See, Roger Penske admitted last week that Keselowski was seeking a future in this sport past his driving duties. Whenever he decided to retire, he wanted to remain in NASCAR is an ownership capacity. Unfortunately for Keselowski, Penske isn’t set up just to add another name in the mix for a role that Keselowski was seeking.
What most don’t realize is that these talks took place long before this year. Penske just recently said that he had always known that Keselowski wanted an ownership stake. The thing is, with him having a contract in place through 2020, the big decisions didn’t really start until last year once Keselowski started taking a look at his future in the midst of seeking a new contract. Penske offered Keselowski a two year deal last year, but Keselowski took just a one year option and said that he wanted to pursue other driving/ownership opportunities in the meantime.
So, Keselowski was back in 2021 but also knowing that he needed something for 2022. Still, Penske had held out hope that Keselowski would still come back. So, earlier this year, he offered him a new three year deal to stay put in the 2 ride through the 2024 season. Keselowski, turned it down and went shopping. While he wasn’t saying “no” he was saying “let me see what else I can find that involves an owner role too.”
He later came back to Penske and said that he found a suitor that would allow him to do both and he can start as soon as next season. That suitor?
So, Penske and Keselowski met in the last spring and decided to part ways at seasons end. They’d remain friends forever but this was business and Penske wished him the best of luck.
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.”
He said on Tuesday that this new deal with RFR was critical to have a long term deal and an opportunity to be involved in decisions on the competition side.
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.
Plus, there’s a new car coming out next year. That changes everything. It’s as good of a time as ever to jump in as it’s basically a reset button for all the team for this new car. Maybe RFR isn’t so far behind Penske once 2022 comes around and with someone of Keselowski’s caliber mixed with some resources and funding he can bring, maybe this is the tipping point for RFR. Maybe all they needed was a Keselowski.
I mean, some may wonder why RFR? Why leave a storied organization that you’re the all-time wins leader at, the guy who brought home their first Xfinity as well as first Cup championship to. Why leave for a team that’s won just twice in the last 238 races (since 2015)? RFR has just 27 top five finishes, 80 top 10’s and 602 laps led since the start of the 2015 season. In that same span, Keselowski has 19 wins, 85 top fives, 140 top 10’s and 5,538 laps led. He had almost as many top five finishes (26) between 2019 and 2020 than RFR has had in the last seven years.
Why leave an established championship contending team for one that’s struggled for much of the last decade?
Well, combine all the factors above, why not? With all the new owners taking over and an opportunity to help a team rebound to where they used to be, especially one with such deep Michigan ties, as well as secure his future for the long term, there’s no better time than now to do so.
With all that said, what are the realistic expectations? RFR hasn’t matched Penske/Keselowski for performance in years. But, that new car could help things. Secondly, it’s not like RFR has been a down organization forever. They used to be among one of NASCAR’s powerhouses.
They’ve won two Cup championships to go along with 137 races. To go along with that, RFR has scored 758 top fives since their debut in 1988 with 1,790 top 10’s and 1,073,582 laps led.
They had a ton of success with Mark Martin who won 35 times, scored 234 top five finishes and 374 top 10’s along with leading 11,365 laps from 1988 through 2006 with the team.
Kurt Busch had 15 wins, 50 top fives, 91 top 10’s, 3,749 laps led to go along with championship in 2004 with them.
Matt Kenseth won a title for them in 2003 to go along with 24 wins, 126 top fives, 228 top 10’s and 7,143 laps led. Carl Edwards was a workhorse with having 23 wins, 108 top five finishes, 187 top 10’s and 4,842 laps led during his career as an RFR driver. Even Greg Biffle had a ton of success there. He won all 19 of his races with RFR. So was his 92 top fives, 175 top 10’s and all 5,844 of his laps led.
The problem is, once these drivers left, RFR was all downhill since.
Martin left after the 2006 season. Busch departed a year prior. That’s 50 combined wins, 284 top five finishes, 465 top 10’s and 15,114 laps led out once the 2007 Daytona 500 began. Edwards, Kenseth and Biffle kept it going but when Kenseth left for JGR following the 2012 season and Edwards doing the same two years later, RFR was never the same in wake of that.
Biffle was gone two years after Edwards.
Combined, that’s 66 wins, 326 top five finishes, 590 top 10’s and 17,829 laps led gone between Kenseth, Edwards and Biffle. Throw in Martin and Busch and that’s 116 of their 137 wins, 610 of their 758 top fives, 1,055 of their 1,390 top 10’s and 32,943 laps led out the door.
Having Keselowski bring with him a championship, 35 wins, 135 top five finishes, 219 top 10’s and 8,637 laps led is like bringing one of those past drivers back. Usually this has been a place where those drivers left but now they’re getting one as good if not better than all of them back in return.
With the proper resources and the proper talent, RFR has proven that they can be a consistent winner. I mean just look no further than what Tony Stewart did. He left a stable JGR organization after the 2008 season to do a similar role to Keselowski. Stewart, bought into Gene Haas’ team. Prior to Stewart, they had yet to win a race in 284 tries. They had just one combined top five finish, 14 top 10’s and 109 laps led.
Why would Stewart go there?
Well, he was 37 and also thinking about his future. Keselowski is also 37 now, has eerily the same amount of wins as Stewart when he made the move and helping own a better established team in Roush Fenway than Stewart was with Haas. Plus, in similar fashion, the Car of Tomorrow came out in 2008, one year before Stewart bought into Haas as well.
Stewart, won four times, had 15 top five finishes, 23 top 10’s and had led 414 laps in his first season as a driver/part owner in 2009. He also won 16 times in eight years as a driver for Stewart-Haas Racing including a championship in 2011.
Could this serve as a blueprint for Keselowski and a good measuring stick to look at for expectations? I’d say so.