2009 Ride(s): No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, No. 12 Penske Championship Racing Dodge, No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2009 Sponsors: Miccosukee Indian Gaming Resort (No. 09), Verizon Wireless (No. 12 – no logos on car), GoDaddy.com (No. 25)
2009 Owners: James Finch (No. 09), Roger Penske (No. 12), Rick Hendrick (No. 25)
2009 Crew Chiefs: Roy McCauley (No. 12), Tony Eury Jr. (No. 25), Lance McGrew (No. 25), Marc Reno (No. 09)
2009 Stats: 15 starts, 1 win, 1 top five, 4 top 10s, 0 poles, 38th in points
High Point: Brad Keselowski turned the racing world upside down, literally, at Talladega this spring. Remembering all too well how fellow underdog Regan Smith was robbed of victory at the same track one season before, Keselowski held his position along the yellow line while diving for the lead – even as it meant sending Carl Edwards airborne into the catchfence. The steadfast move left Keselowski with his first Cup victory and the first for owner James Finch in nearly 200 starts at the Cup level.
Though critics of plate racing will quickly jump in to discount Keselowski’s first Cup triumph, there is no doubting that this Nationwide regular proved capable of running with the big boys that Sunday afternoon. Hendrick affiliation or not, a single-car team winning a Cup race with a part-time driver is about as tall of a high point as they come.
Low Point: At Dover in June, Keselowski endured one of the inevitable moments that found him lost in the shadow of his owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Attempting the Cup race with Hendrick’s No. 25 team, Keselowski’s crew chief Lance McGrew had bigger things on the brain than the weekend’s race… he was going to become Dale Jr.’s crew chief the very next weekend.
Couple that understandable distraction with Keselowski coming off a weekend at Charlotte that would make any driver apprehensive about his team (he wrecked his Nationwide Series ride in practice because of the team’s failure to go through equipment checks at the shop), and it’s perhaps not surprising that Keselowski and the No. 25 team failed to make the field. Outside of the season-opening Daytona 500, it was the only Cup race that Keselowski failed to qualify for in 2009.
Summary: Keselowski had a superb year in Nationwide competition, winning four races and scoring 28 top-10 finishes en route to a top-three points finish, but it was his win at Talladega that escalated him from prospect to superstar in the making. And it wasn’t just his plate-racing prowess (he finished top 10 at Talladega in the fall as well) that was impressive on the Cup side. Keselowski scored a top-10 finish at Darlington and top-15 runs at both Kansas and Charlotte (he had another going at Chicago before blowing a tire late).
His numbers in a part-time Cup effort exceeded those of every rookie out there in recent memory that has attempted a part-time Cup slate on their way up the ladder, and there wasn’t a soul out there, fan or foe, that would deny Keselowski was ready for the full-time ride he has with the No. 12 at Penske Racing.
The big news for Keselowski though was just that, his move from NASCAR juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports to the Penske camp. There were plenty out there (this writer included) that saw Keselowski’s move as short-sighted, and his runs in the No. 12 car that is now his during the final three races of 2009 were less than impressive (a best finish of 25th, an average finish of 32.3). But the deal is done, and now Keselowski faces the challenge of taking a No. 12 car that was already struggling with David Stremme (via Ryan Newman) and bringing it up to the level of teammates Kurt Busch and the much-improved Sam Hornish Jr.
Still, looking back at 2009, it’s hard to call his season anything but a success. Four Nationwide Series wins, a Cup race win and now full-time rides in both the Nationwide and Cup series have come his way! Not too bad for a guy who just a few seasons ago was toiling with the underfunded and now extinct Keith Coleman Racing.
Team Ranking: Considering how many teams he raced with, it’s hard to assign a single value. But Keselowski was by far the most accomplished driver in Phoenix Racing’s No. 09 car, arguably ran better than Dale Earnhardt Jr. did in his races with HMS and was on par even after only three starts with what Stremme did all season in the No. 12 car.
2010 Outlook: 2009 made one thing very clear: Keselowski is one of the most talented drivers NASCAR has seen come around in a while, as well as one of the most aggressive. Where the question lays is with his equipment. Since winning the Daytona 500 in 2008, the No. 12 Cup car has been a middle-tier ride at best, and by the end of this year was by far the worst-running car in the Penske stable. Keselowski made three starts with the team, but did not prove to be a miracle quick fix.
Fortunately, there is a lot going for Keselowski to get his new car turned around. Penske teammates Busch and Hornish made progress in 2009, and will have plenty of notes to share. Further, Penske made the wise choice to go with an outside hire for crew chief of a team that had gone stale, as Jay Guy comes over from Furniture Row Racing to take over for Roy McCauley.
Between Guy and Keselowski’s willingness to be outspoken about what his new home needs to stack up with the Hendrick monster, all the pieces are in place for the No. 12 car to surge back towards the front in 2009. A Chase berth is a whole lot to ask for, but Keselowski should have no problem cracking the top 20 in points and challenging for a win or two along the way.
2008 Frontstretch Grade: N/A
2009 Grade: A
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