NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: The Right Fit – Why Brad Keselowski Joining Penske Racing in 2010 Will Work

On Tuesday, the worst kept secret in NASCAR was made official, as it was confirmed that Brad Keselowski has joined Penske Racing as the new driver of their No. 12 Dodges for 2010 and beyond. The 25-year-old from Rochester Hills, Michigan, who has been at the employ of JR Motorsports for the past two seasons in the Nationwide Series, is making the jump to Sprint Cup next season full-time, as well as competing full-time for the Nationwide Series championship with his new organization. But with his existing ties to Chevrolet (and perhaps more importantly, Hendrick Motorsports), some have questioned as to why Keselowski would make this move at this point in his career.

My initial reaction: Why wouldn’t he?

Many place HMS upon a pedestal of sorts as the holy grail of racing organizations. It is a reputation that has been rightfully earned, and considering its teams have combined for nine wins so far this season, it would be hard to argue that success. They are, to be sure, a dynasty that is not far removed from a certain company that makes fast red cars in my homeland – or another that has won the Indianapolis 500 a total of 15 times. Yet while NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500 are worlds apart, the potential for Keselowski to do great things with Penske is certainly there – and for this he should not feel beholden to one racing organization.

First of all, let’s examine the facts here. Keselowski is ready to go racing at the Cup level. He’s won a race, which qualifies him, particularly with the move he made to do so at Talladega. But while the initial plan was for him to split time with Mark Martin in the No. 5 car in 2010, that has since faded, what with Martin tied for the series lead in wins and showing no signs of slowing down – or wanting to slow down – as he did a few years ago. Sitting around waiting for Martin to hang his Nomex footies up could take literally years. And even if the 50-year-old chose to step back, Brad running a partial season at this point would serve little more than to reinforce that he is ready to race at this level, and further complicate the Chase standings next year with two drivers splitting time in one car.

Besides, if you are going to drive for an owner whose last name isn’t Hendrick, you’d be hard pressed to do better than “The Captain.”

Sure, there were other choices… but would any of them have worked? Stewart-Haas Racing might have been an option, but sponsorship and team expansion isn’t in the cards quite yet, and with General Motors and Chevrolet racing budgets slashed, it likely isn’t the right time to put a crash program together for a rookie, much less expect it to be successful. And if Brad had stayed in the HMS umbrella waiting for a seat to open, what would he end up doing? Replacing either Martin or Jeff Gordon – where the scrutiny and parallels would be quite a bit to endure, along with the expectations that would no doubt accompany such a move. Ask David Ragan how that one has worked out so far. So what’s a man to do?

Enter Penske Racing.

In my mind, this is quite possibly the ideal team for Keselowski to align himself with, compared to the complex juggling act that he would have faced at Hendrick. Penske has ample resources as a three-car operation, with a good mix of an established veteran and a successful open-wheeler in Sam Hornish Jr. who continues to improve. The flagship No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge that Rusty Wallace made so famous from 1991-2005 currently has Kurt Busch at the controls, and he is in place for the foreseeable future – though there is some speculation as to just how far beyond 2010 his contract extends. At Penske, Brad has room to grow, succeed, and make a place for himself. At Hendrick, I am afraid he would have ultimately suffered the same fate as Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears: being lost in the shuffle amongst a collection of champions, legends and essentially the face of an entire racing series.

So unless you are a bowtie loyalist, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a legitimate reason why Keselowski would stay where he was at. This isn’t Rocky V, and he isn’t Tommy Gunn, joining with a new promoter to get a shot at the big time because his current trainer didn’t think he was ready yet. As mentioned before, he has already won a race at the Cup level. Yes, it was the result of Carl Edwards driving across his front end, but a win is a win, and there are a lot of other veterans who did not have themselves in a position to have their hoods driven across that day. In the subsequent races this year, driving the Nos. 25 and 09 cars as part-time entries, he has three top 10s in eight starts while another strong showing at Chicago was thwarted by a flat tire late in the going.

While some might question Dodge’s commitment to the sport, the Penske organization is the best representative of the brand currently in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series today. They are responsible for half of Dodge’s victories so far this year, which sounds mighty impressive until you check to see there have only been two wins total. So while the rumors swirl that Penske may be the next to make the move to Toyota – and it would be hard to find fault with such a change – it would position those drivers to be aligned with a company that is still in a position to properly and competitively fund its motorsports endeavors. Plus, with Roger Penske now having taken ownership of Saturn, might there be a new nameplate on the horizon? While that is unlikely in the foreseeable future, as with any investment – and motorsports – it is best to get in on the ground level.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Vickers with Team Red Bull’s Toyotas or anybody aligned with Michael Waltrip Racing.

With a story that has such tremendous upside, there is bound to be a loser in the equation, and that appears to be David Stremme. Having served as Penske’s test driver last season and driver for Rusty Wallace’s Nationwide entry, he was given a second chance at Cup after his first stint with Chip Ganassi Racing resulted in points finishes of 33rd and 21st in 2006 and ’07. However, those three top 10s earned his second season are all there’s been to crow about so far. Considering the driver took over for a team that was struggling with Ryan Newman at the wheel, coupled with a testing ban this year, the results have been dismal… but not surprising. Stremme has yet to win in NASCAR competition, but he has had a steady history of getting as much out of the equipment as it had to offer, along with being a steady, reliable driver. Might he be moved to a fourth Penske team or return to the Nationwide Series? That remains to be seen, but it would be a shame if he didn’t get another opportunity with an established organization.

That being said, just how will Keselowski fare in the No. 12 Dodges? It is, after all, the car without a sponsor-that-kind-of-has-a-sponsor coupled with the aforementioned struggles the team has experienced this year. Is this a recipe for success, or might it spell disaster? Will this turn out to be an ill-advised move for a driver who had a Hendrick ride all but lined up for him at the dawn of his career?

My fearless prediction is that the 2010 results will appear similar to that of Kyle Busch with his move to Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 18 car.

Think back to the position that Busch was in upon his joining Joe Gibbs Racing – leaving HMS under the auspice of being an outcast from a team that was essentially Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. At JGR, he took over the reins of a car that had quite a bit of history surrounding it a couple of years earlier with Bobby Labonte at the wheel and Dale Jarrett before that. Yet after JJ Yeley spent a couple of seasons at the helm (by the way, get well soon, JJ) and failed to generate the desired results, Kyle returned what had degenerated into a middling-pack runner to its once former glory as a consistent race winner in a matter of months. While I have high hopes for Keselowski, I think the results may be somewhat muted compared to Busch – mainly due to experience and perhaps the lack of a large chip on Brad’s shoulder. But they’ll still be substantial.

As I said last week when the question came up in our Mirror Driving column, why would Brad jump ship and abandon a chance at a Hendrick ride to a team that appears to be a struggling side-project with Penske Racing? To me, it comes down to dollars and sense.

If somebody was going to offer you a salary paying what today would likely bring in $3-5 million a year, plus 40% of winnings (which so far this year for the No. 12 car in 31st place in points amounts to $1.2 million), along with 40% of souvenir sales compared to remaining in Nationwide, waiting for a chance that might not come for a couple of years – if at all – how could you say no?

Speaking of Nationwide, Keselowski will be running that entire schedule as well, which is making its move to their CoT in 2010. So he will get more than enough seat time in CoT-type cars; plus, he gets to do it in a badass Dodge Challenger – not in a dopey-looking Impala. Why Chevrolet insists on fielding that in the Nationwide Series instead of the Camaro is beyond me… but that is another rant for another time.

One thing I do know for sure is that I hate clichés, and one of them that ranks atop the list with “at the end of the day” and “it’s a win-win…” is “it’s a perfect fit.” That being said, I feel this really is a perfect fit for Keselowski. The No. 12 car is a blank slate enough on which to write some history of his own, without the comparisons and obsession that would likely follow had he landed a seat at HMS or its satellite team.

That’s not to say Keselowski may not end up at HMS someday, but at this point in his career, Penske Racing may prove to be his best decision yet. Without a doubt, that’s just as good of a move as he put on Edwards to win his first Sprint Cup race earlier this year.

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