By winning at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25, Brad Keselowski might’ve moved into a tie for the second most wins at the track. But he also solidified his spot as the No. 1 free agent for the upcoming silly season.
With 35 career wins, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion is a lock for the Hall of Fame. He’s now won a race in 11 straight seasons. With the way the top teams cycle around in Cup, that means Keselowski has been able to find his way to victory lane no matter how great the car was.
All but one win came behind the wheel of the Team Penske No. 2, and he is just three wins shy of tying Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace’s 37 wins in that car (Wallace’s first 18 were for Raymond Beadle). But if Keselowski doesn’t win three more races this season, then he might not ever have the opportunity hit that mark.
Keselowski was set to be a free agent after the 2020 season, and it took him and Penske a long time to work out an agreement, which didn’t come until August. And all they managed to land on was a one-year extension. That means this very well could be Keselowski’s last year with The Captain, as he could test the waters of free agency again. Only this time, he will be doing so in an economy not as ravaged as it was last year by COVID-19. And this time, the prospect of ownership might come into play.
Penske has indicated the team wants to re-sign Keselowski again. But of course the team wants to bring him back. What available driver could they possibly put in the No. 2 who would be a better option than Keselowski? Austin Cindric already has a deal in place with Penske’s satellite team, Wood Brothers Racing. Matt DiBenedetto is available, but if he keeps squashing his opportunities to win like he did at Talladega, then is The Captain going to want him in the No. 2?
Penske adds early talks on a contract extension with Brad Keselowski have begun, and he plans to have discussions with Power and Pagenuad. He does not like to do these contract talks over phone or zoom.
— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) March 22, 2021
The question is not what Penske wants, but rather what Keselowski wants. At 37 years old, Keselowski is in the prime of his career, but he also needs to start thinking about life after racing. In fact, he already has — he started Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing (KAM) in 2018, right after shutting down his Camping World Truck Series program.
Brad Keselowski Racing was shut down because it was losing money, and Keselowski noted at the time that he needed to have money coming from elsewhere, like some of the most successful team owners in NASCAR have.
“It’s a little bit of a counter-offensive with respect to if you look at all the business owners at this level – and really all three of these levels – they have a sustainable, profitable business outside of motorsports and that’s going to remain the key for any owner to have success because the reality is I can only be a race car driver for so long,” Keselowski said when he shut down the Truck team and prepped for KAM. “When that time comes up, my business would have had to shut down because I don’t have a profit center, and having that profit center is what helps you get through the ebbs and flows that every race team has, so I need to have one of those profit centers.”
Now that KAM has been around for a few years, is Keselowski primed to finally achieve his goal of owning a Cup team?
“I’ve never made it a secret that I would eventually like to be an owner at the top level of the sport,” Keselowski said. “And, while this is many years down the line, I want to start to prepare for that possibility now.
“Part of that preparation is seeking to develop an advanced engineering and manufacturing company that would be housed out of our 78,000-square-foot facility in Statesville [North Carolina] and ultimately help to support this vision.”
If Keselowski were to start a team, though, he would likely need to go the same route as Michael Waltrip, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Cup drivers are wealthy people, but these days, they need a partner with some serious cash to form a team. Waltrip found Rob Kauffman, Stewart got Gene Haas and Hamlin most recently got Michael Jordan.
Keselowski would likely have to go the same route. Obviously, Penske isn’t selling a large chunk of his team to Keselowski, but there’s a couple already existing teams that would make sense for the Michigan native to buy into.
Roush Fenway Racing
Let’s face it, Jack Roush is 79 years old, and there’s not really an heir in place for Roush Fenway Racing. LeBron James recently bought into the Fenway Sports Group, and if he has any involvement with the race team (who knows if he’s even aware it exists?), then he might want his own future Hall of Famer to match Jordan and Hamlin.
If Keselowski were to buy into RFR, he could move from one iconic ride to another in the form of the No. 6, assuming Ryan Newman retires at the end of the year. This would keep Keselowski in the fold with Ford, who likely doesn’t want to lose one of its most decorated stars.
Keselowski’s and KAM’s investment into the team could help with the performance that has been lacking for just shy of a decade. RFR already has a talented driver in the form of Chris Buescher. Throw in Keselowski and some extra funds, and we could see this team back where it was in the 1990s and 2000s.
Front Row Motorsports
This would be another situation of Ford keeping Keselowski in the fold. His Truck team developed a large chunk of the talent in the Cup Series, so Ford could use him as an owner again.
Front Row Motorsports isn’t up to snuff with Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, but I’d argue Bob Jenkins’ team is currently better than RFR. Michael McDowell just won the team the Daytona 500 and is ahead of Newman and Buescher in the point standings.
If Stewart’s involvement can turn Haas’ 30th-place team into a championship contender, then Keselowski and KAM can easily do that by buying into FRM.
Keselowski could replace Anthony Alfredo in the No. 38, as he is struggling back in 29th in points. Or the team could expand back up to three cars, something it briefly did in 2019.
Every couple of years, the rumor of Keselowski to Hendrick Motorsports kicks up again. After all, he is the driver who got away after being developed by the team. There were rumors he could take over the No. 48 for this year, and that’s something could still happen next year, even though Alex Bowman has been doing quite well.
Bowman keeps only getting one-year deals from the team — for some reason Hendrick won’t commit to him long term. Is it because Hendrick still has its eye on Keselowski?
Hendrick needs sponsors, and maybe KAM and some companies Keselowski brings with him can help out with that. And the move would set up Keselowski for the future, as Hendrick has given his drivers a percentage of HMS and ownership of some dealerships in the past.
Plus, there is no heir apparent at HMS, and Rick Hendrick is 71 years old. It’s been rumored that Jeff Gordon might take over the team, but what if Gordon doesn’t want to? Enter Keselowski. He could learn the ropes from Mr. H for a few years before taking over himself.
Gaunt Brothers Racing
Toyota has the least amout Cup teams and might want to change that. 23XI Racing is likely to expand eventually, given the plans to get a bigger shop. But Toyota could have another full-time team if it supported Keselowski in a combined effort with part-time team Gaunt Brothers Racing.
GBR just used TRD driver Harrison Burton to get his feet wet in Cup. That could be the first step to a larger backing for the team from the manufacture. If Keselowski bought into the team, the Toyota would definitely step up its support. Maybe the team could even field two cars, one for Keselowski and another for Burton.
Keselowski teaming up with the Gaunts is probably the least likely of these scenarios. But after seeing Jordan and Pitbull come into the sport as owners with Hamlin and Justin Marks, I won’t rule out anything.
Obviously, Keselowski could just return to Penske or sign with another team and further delay his goal of owning a Cup team. But don’t be surprised if grandson of former Cup owner John Keselowski decides that he wants to be his own boss sooner than later.