Did You Notice? … Brad Keselowski will reportedly purchase an interest in Roush Fenway Racing? First reported by Motorsport’s Jim Utter, the deal would make the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion part owner and driver of the No. 6 Ford in 2022. The rumor has been around for a few weeks but public support of the story has come quickly, with Bob Pockrass of FOX Sports reporting Tuesday night (May 18) he expects the deal “will happen.”
The move would end Keselowski’s 12-year tenure with Team Penske, the only full-time team he’s competed with on the Cup level. 34 of his 35 victories have come in the iconic No. 2, the flagship program brought to prominence by Rusty Wallace in the 1990s. His departure would open up one of the most coveted rides in the sport.
So what does the first domino in Silly Season mean for all involved? Assuming this deal does, indeed, come through, here’s a look at the winners and losers from Keselowski’s big decision.
WINNER: Roush Fenway Racing. Once upon a time, RFR was the premier team at not only Ford but NASCAR itself. Established in 1988, the organization challenged for titles throughout the 1990s with Hall of Famer Mark Martin. Expanding throughout the decade, they peaked shortly after the turn of the century, producing back-to-back titles with Matt Kenseth (2003) and Kurt Busch (2004). A year later, in just the second year of NASCAR’s postseason format, RFR placed all five of its full-time drivers inside the top 10 in points.
But as the decade went on, Martin left the program and Roush entered a slow decline. By 2009, NASCAR created a four-team rule and forced Roush to shut down one of its cars. A 2010 plane crash in Wisconsin left Jack Roush with serious injuries, costing the owner his left eye. Two years later, Kenseth chose to leave the program for Joe Gibbs Racing; Carl Edwards followed suit after 2014.
Since Edwards left, the program has won only twice, failing to place a single one of its drivers inside the top 10 in points. It’s shrunk to just two full-time teams despite additional funding from Fenway Sports Group, an investment partnership that now includes LeBron James. And Roush, at age 79, has no clear succession plan for his program, unlike other aging owners like Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs.
That changes with Keselowski coming on board. Suddenly, RFR is relevant again, employing its most accomplished driver since Edwards (or arguably Kenseth). A former champion brings credibility, both in the boardroom and on the racetrack. Was a presence like Keselowski needed in order to keep the Fenway investors on board?
Roush now has a chance to go out on top, or at least in a better position than he appeared even with Chris Buescher in playoff position this season. That’s a huge win.
WINNER: Austin Cindric. The reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion is at it again this season, leading the points while earning a series-best three wins in the first 10 races of 2021. Success has already guaranteed him a promotion next season in the form of Penske’s satellite team, Wood Brothers Racing.
A move to the No. 2 car is a much bigger step in 2022. Could Cindric handle it? Some may cry nepotism and say, with father Tim the president of Team Penske, that it’s unfair to put the son in the team’s top ride.
I say why not. At age 22, he’s blossomed quicker and more effectively than anyone expected. A self-proclaimed road course expert will be moving up just as that track type has expanded to occupy almost 20% of the schedule. Cindric was in contention at the season-opening Daytona 500, running a part-time Penske car, and could snag a top-10 finish or better in Cup before this year is out.
Most importantly … if not Cindric, who? Rick Hendrick made clear at Dover International Speedway Sunday (May 16) all four of his drivers are signed over the long term. Penske’s other big rival this season, Joe Gibbs Racing, is in the same position with their quartet. Kevin Harvick? He’s signed at Stewart-Haas Racing through 2023.
That leads to slim pickings in a Silly Season with limited prospects (The strongest Cup driver left standing? I’d go with Tyler Reddick). At Cindric’s level, compare him to the NXS prospects who have won this year: Josh Berry, Jeb Burton, Ty Gibbs and Myatt Snider. Do you see any of them driving for Penske? (Certainly not Joe Gibbs’ grandson). 2020 Cup rookie John Hunter Nemechek is leading the points in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series but seems tied to Kyle Busch Motorsports and Toyota.
Bottom line, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone out there beating Cindric’s resume who isn’t already signed to a long-term deal. Moving him from the No. 21 to the No. 2 makes sense. Which means ….
WINNER: Matt DiBenedetto. DiBenedetto likes driving for the Wood Brothers, and they seem to like him. Ending the partnership after 2021 always seemed like a mistake for both parties. Matty D is one of the sport’s more popular drivers, on the precipice of victory lane after his first-ever postseason bid in 2020. After a shaky start this season, the No. 21 team has stabilized and could easily make the playoffs again. Paul Menard’s hand-picked replacement has embraced his role there and has chemistry with crew chief Greg Erwin.
Bottom line, an underdog driver is a good fit for a single-car program propped up by Penske connections. And if Matty D got kicked out? Where would he go? Perhaps 23XI Racing would expand, but there appears to be a spot waiting for Harrison Burton or Ty Gibbs down the line. Stewart-Haas Racing? It feels like a weird fit, even if a spot becomes available at Aric Almirola’s ride. Chip Ganassi Racing would appear to be little more than a lateral move.
Keselowski could leave one of the sport’s unique personalities in position to build a long-term future with the Woods. And I think both sides could be very happy with that. We’ll see.
WINNER: Brad Keselowski. Back in 2017, Keselowski shocked observers by closing his Truck Series program. In a decade of competition, the team racked up 11 wins while developing future Cup full-timers like Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe and Reddick. (Cindric, too!) When pressed about his long-term plans, Keselowski insisted it was short-term pain for long-term gain as he plotted his post-driving future.
“I can only be a racecar driver for so long,” Keselowski said then. “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.
“That doesn’t mean that I’ll be a Cup owner one day, but that means when the time is right if we achieve the goals that I have, I’ll have the opportunity to make that decision myself and not have it made for me.”
I’ve covered Keselowski for over a decade, having the privilege of following him closely through a Driver Diary for SI.com. What I’ve learned is he’s one of the smartest drivers inside the garage, a decisive thinker who’s typically two steps ahead on the chessboard. What I took from those comments then is he didn’t want to risk losing money on Trucks when he had an eye on much bigger fish over the long-term.
The time to strike is now. Yes, Keselowski will compete against his former boss and Tony Stewart at Ford, but at age 37, he could be the next-generation owner that the manufacturer needs. His innovative ideas on how to grow the sport can only help RFR, and his past experiences will help in collecting sponsorship and building a program. Remember, he was at the forefront of rebuilding Penske’s culture and structure after the boss poached him from Hendrick in 2010.
Owning a Cup team is the logical next step in the process, where Keselowski can utilize those lessons to build a contender. He’d accomplished everything he set out to do with Penske and leaves the program in good hands with Joey Logano. It’s time.
LOSER: Ryan Newman. Honestly, this deal feels like a win-win for everyone involved. But if there’s a loser at all, it’s Newman, seemingly forced out of his ride after this season.
I’m just not sure it’s that big a deal for the 43-year-old who cheated death after his crash in the 2020 Daytona 500. When Newman signed with RFR, after the 2018 season, I was told the plan was to run there for three years and then retire.
But Utter mentioned on SiriusXM NASCAR that Newman could potentially stay at the Keselowski/Roush team in a third part-time car.
For a guy who turns 44 in September, that’s right around the age others have chosen retirement lately: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name a few. One thing’s for certain: options might be scarce for a driver who has just one top-five finish in his last 46 starts on the Cup level.