Every once in a while in racing you see that perfect match – a struggling driver or team turning the corner when surrounded by the right people. Teams often swap crew chiefs within its own organization in an effort to jumpstart poor performance, but beginning this week at Chicagoland, it will be both a young driver and a struggling race team depending on each other to live up to their respective expectations in the Busch Series.
Brad Keselowski, weeks removed from lobbying for a Busch Series ride, was scooped up by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and JR Motorsports to replace Shane Huffman in the No. 88 car. The team decided a change was necessary after a mid-season evaluation. Huffman’s temporary replacement now has just three races to prove to Earnhardt that the two of them are better off with each other than without.
The struggles at JR Motorsports have been pretty well documented. Huffman posted just two top fives in 19 starts (third at Richmond and fifth at Milwaukee) before Earnhardt took the wheel at Daytona last week and called his car’s qualifying performance “embarrassing.” On the other side, Keselowski’s season has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride.
The son of former ARCA champion Bob Keselowski, the 23-year-old driver’s best finish this season for Keith Coleman Racing was a 24th-place run at Dover, a race that ended in an accident that claimed the final car in the team’s inventory. Shortly after, team owner Keith Coleman was forced to shut down operations and put the team up for sale after being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.
Keselowski’s next opportunity came when Ted Musgrave was suspended for one race in the Truck Series. On short notice, the young man put the No. 9 Germain Racing truck on the pole at Memphis Motorsports Park and went on to lead 62 laps before being taken out by Travis Kvapil for the win late in the race.
Huffman is an extremely talented driver who may have been the scapegoat at a struggling JRM. Nonetheless, Keselowski must now take advantage of his opportunity.
As has been shown in the past, young drivers must perform well when called upon in order to move up the ranks, and this could very well be Keselowski’s job to take. If in fact Junior was truly disappointed with the way his car ran at Daytona, then expect him to do something about it. Keselowski’s first opportunity couldn’t have come at a better track than Chicago; which is similar in design to the Las Vegas track where Huffman posted one of his four top top 10s this season.
Keselowski has age on his side, and with the way he remained composed in post-race interviews after Kvapil spoiled any shot he had at a victory, it appears that he has charisma and personality on his side as well.
While JRM and Keselowski may need each other, there is certainly more pressure on Keselowski. JRM can always find another driver, or put Huffman back in the car, but Keselowski may not get another chance to step in a competitive car.
Expect him to take advantage of his opportunity.