The 2021 season has been an interesting one. There have been 17 races in the NASCAR Cup Series and Kyle Larson appears to be the clear-cut favorite to win the championship. Also noticeable is the struggles from Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
Keselowski sat second in the points five races into the 2021 season. Since then, he has dropped to 10th and has just two top-10 finishes in those 12 races. It comes as an interesting time for Keselowski. He is a free agent at the end of the season and there are rumors he may leave the organization and join Roush Fenway Racing as a driver and part-owner of the team.
That has led many to believe that the looming distractions may prevent Keselowski from seriously competing for a championship. However, Keselowski hasn’t missed the playoffs since the 2013 season. The team finished runner-up in the championship last year, so it has recent success to show it can compete for a championship. That sounds like a good debate.
Will Keselowski and his team continue to struggle during the 2021 season? Luken Glover and Clayton Caldwell take on this topic in this week’s 2-Headed Monster.
It’s a Slippery Slope
There is no denying the talent, versatility and determination of Brad Keselowski. He has found a way to be relevant when his team does not appear to be on the same level. Keselowski has also had no issue being one of the most outspoken drivers in the sport when addressing issues. But what separates 2021 from any other year?
For starters, Keselowski’s stats through 17 races are comparable to his 2013 stats, arguably his worst season aside from 2010 (his first full-time season with Team Penske). The concerning aspect is that some stats are even worse.
For example, Keselowski recorded five top fives and eight top 10s through the first 17 races of 2013. This season, Keselowski has earned five top fives and just five top 10s. He is barely above his 2013 mark in average finish, laps led, and points standing, but not by much.
An interesting aspect is the high-to-low turnover he’s experiencing. After winning the Cup title in 2012, he experienced a significant drop-off in 2013, missing the playoffs and not winning until the 31st race of the year. Last year, Keselowski had one of his best seasons ever, with a career-high average finish of 7.6 and coming up one spot short of winning his second championship. Now, Keselowski has endured six straight finishes outside the top 10 with only 10 laps led.
If the playoffs began today, Keselowski’s five top 10s would be tied with Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell for 15th out of the 16 drivers. That’s equal to a mid-pack team in Front Row Motorsports and only ahead of Chris Buescher‘s four top 10s. And one could argue his sole win thus far at Talladega Superspeedway came because of a mistake by Matt DiBenedetto and his spotter. A year ago at this point, the No. 2 team had acquired 12 top-10 finishes and two wins.
The most laps he has led in a race this year came at Kansas Speedway, where he paced the field for 72 laps. He exceeded that mark three times in the first 17 races a year ago. This team has the ability to turn it around quickly, but the numbers aren’t looking promising at the moment.
As mentioned above, Kyle Larson is the championship favorite at the moment. How does that affect Keselowski? Not only has it affected the No. 2 team, it has affected the whole field.
Larson and Hendrick Motorsports are competing at an historic pace right now. Joe Gibbs Racing is arguably next on the ladder with five wins and Denny Hamlin slightly holding the points lead. It then seems to take a reasonably-sized step down to Team Penske. Keselowski is not alone with struggles for the blue oval. The struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing thus far have been well-documented about. And after many expected all three Penske drivers to be championship threats, none of them seem ready to challenge HMS.
Joey Logano has been solid this year, but he also only has one win and hasn’t led more than 10 laps since the ninth race of the season at Richmond Raceway. Ryan Blaney‘s inconsistency continues to plague him as most of his stats are on pace to be career-lows since his first year with Team Penske in 2018, also with only one win.
Chevrolet brought in a new engine this year with the collaboration of HMS and Richard Childress Racing’s ECR, as well as its altered nose that was introduced last season. Toyota continues to be a powerhouse in the sport and will be a threat all year. So after leading the brigade arguably the past two or three years, Ford has taken a step back in 2021.
Many insiders seem confident that a move to Roush Fenway Racing in an owner-driver role for Keselowski is a done deal. Both Keselowski, RFR and Roger Penske have been mum on the subject, but their answers have not swayed opinions much, if at all. While Keselowski has the confidence and focus that champions carry, matters like these typically do cause some bit of distraction.
With this offer containing ownership, it raises the pressure even more for Keselowski to focus on 2021. He and the deuce crew have everything it takes to right the ship. There are just some larger hurdles this time around. – Luken Glover
June is Not September
Brad Keselowski is a NASCAR Cup Series champion. That is something he doesn’t take for granted. It’s something to be proud about and there’s a certain respect that champions have for the sport that can’t be unmatched. Champions don’t grow on trees; they don’t give away titles, even if the playoff format is a bit wacky.
The reason why certain individuals are great is due to their mentality. They never quit. I know there is a major distraction regarding Keselowski’s contract and pending free agency, but I also know that Brad is not a quitter and his crew chief and his team will not quit on him. That’s what makes them great.
Remember, this is a multi-million dollar sports organization here. They are not going to let contract negotiations get into the way of running for a championship. The sponsors have paid too much money, Roger Penske has too much invested and the organization is too proud to have 2022 get in the way of 2021.
There’s no doubt something seems to be amiss with the No. 2 team recently. The team started the year off strong. Through the first five races of the season Keselowski was second in the standings including a near win in the Daytona 500 in February.
Since Phoenix Raceway, the team has just two top-10 finishes, including his victory at Talladega. However, the key in that sentence was victory. The win at Talladega locked Keselowski and his team into the playoffs. They can do whatever they want until the playoffs roll around. That’s why I wouldn’t be worried. The playoffs are a whole new ballgame.
Keselowski is coming off a season in which he won four races and made a deep run into the playoffs. We know that he and crew chief Jeremy Bullins have the ability to turn it on come crunch time. They did that in 2020.
Plus, the mentality to win a championship in NASCAR is different since the format changed in 2014. Sometimes the industry looks at consistency as how you win a championship in NASCAR. That may have been true for a long time, but since we’ve gone to this playoff format, all it takes is a good 10 races and you are in the final four. Performing in the final 10 races is key. The first 26 races are about getting into the playoffs, and once you do that, it’s about preparing for the playoffs.
Wins and playoff points are important, but they are overrated if you come in and dominate the playoffs. Last year, Chase Elliott won two races in the regular season and went out and performed when he had to en route to winning the title.
This industry is a monkey-see, monkey-do business, and if you don’t think the industry paid attention to that, you’re wrong. Teams are using all the data they have to help prepare them for the playoffs. Keselowski’s team will be ready to go when the playoffs come around. I am confident in that.
In the end, I know there are distractions. No question Keselowski’s pending free agency is a distraction. However, this team is too good to run like this and the driver is too good to be down long. They can win at any racetrack at any time.
That’s what makes them one of the best teams in the sport. I expect this team to figure it out and make a deep playoff run. Either way though, how they’re running in June is no correlation to how they will run in September. That’s for sure. – Clayton Caldwell