Talladega Superspeedway is the site of Brad Keselowski’s first and most recent wins in the NASCAR Cup Series. Returning to the track for the first time since his April triumph, he’s right in the thick of the championship battle. Only four points above the cutline before the second race of the Round of 12, Keselowski will be fighting to keep those postseason hopes alive as he pursues one last title with Team Penske.
It would have been shocking to think that Keselowski and Penske were soon to part ways even a year ago. Keselowski had an excellent season in 2020, winning four times and advancing to the final round of the postseason. But in 2021, he found a new opportunity that he simply could not pass up. After months of speculation, Keselowski confirmed in July he would be moving to Roush Fenway Racing in 2022, both as a driver and part-owner of the team. In addition to driving, Keselowski will have a leadership role in the team’s competition department and fulfill some personal aspirations to return to team ownership (he previously owned a team in the Camping World Truck Series from 2008-2017).
There is no doubt Keselowski is embracing his new role with RFR with his long-term future in mind. Team ownership of a well-established organization gives him an avenue to stay involved in NASCAR after his driving days are over. However, it is fair to question if the move to RFR comes with a sacrifice to Keselowski’s driving career. Piloting Penske’s No. 2 car, he has won at least one race every season since 2011. His career highlights include the 2012 championship, one win each in the Southern 500, the Brickyard 400, and the Coca-Cola 600, and 35 Cup Series wins overall. Few of Keselowski’s competitors can match his year-to-year consistency over the past decade.
Roush Fenway, on the other hand, has been stuck in a long decline for nearly the same amount of time. The organization has been shut out of victory lane since 2017, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won twice. Prior to Stenhouse’s wins, you would have to go back to 2014 to find RFR’s next most recent victories, both by Carl Edwards. Nothing Jack Roush and his team has done since then has fully righted the ship. Back in the mid-2000s, RFR had a claim to being the best team in NASCAR. But the Roush Fenway operation of today looks like a shadow of its former self, limping along on its former glory from a bygone era.
At first glance, Keselowski’s decision to leave Team Penske for such a struggling organization may look like career suicide. At age 37, he could easily remain competitive for another five to 10 years, and Penske would be the best place to stay competitive.
However, RFR is not a lost cause with Keselowski coming on board. If the organization has lacked for anything in recent years, it is a veteran driver at the top of their game who takes a hands-on approach to team building. Roush Fenway has not had anyone to fill that role since Matt Kenseth left the team after 2012. In fact, losing Kenseth was arguably the biggest catalyst for RFR’s decline.
After fighting through some ups and downs at the end of the 2000s, Roush Fenway reemerged in the early 2010s with several championship-caliber teams. Edwards was the picture of consistency in 2011, cranking out top 10s week after week until losing the championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker. Kenseth was strong in 2011 as well, winning three times and finishing fourth in points.
The following year, it was Kenseth’s and Greg Biffle’s turn to carry the banner. Kenseth won another three races with Biffle winning twice, and the two of them combined to lead the points standings for 21 weeks during the regular season. Yet both drivers’ title hopes were dashed when they got off to a poor start in the Chase.
That was the last time a Roush Fenway driver really got close to winning the championship. Edwards was at the top of the point standings in 2013 prior to the Chase reset, but the No. 99 team tumbled all the way to 13th place by the end of the year. Kenseth moved to Joe Gibbs Racing and hardly missed a beat, winning a career-best seven races in 2013 and battling Jimmie Johnson for the championship through the closing weeks of the season. Roush Fenway continued to decline, especially after Edwards joined Kenseth at JGR and Biffle walked away from full-time racing.
Meanwhile, Kenseth continued to bring a veteran presence to JGR which that team had previously lacked. As time went on, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin got most of the headlines. Yet it often felt like Kenseth was the backbone of JGR’s success in the 2010s, just like he was at RFR a decade earlier.
Keselowski can be the veteran team builder for RFR the organization has been missing. Much like Kenseth, he brings a hands-on approach to his job as a racer. Both men have a wealth of veteran experience and know what it takes to build championship-winning teams. But perhaps more importantly, Keselowski is still one of the top drivers in the sport. His move to RFR is not a case of a fading racer long past his prime buying into a team to have a stable ride in his final years. Keselowski is still a good enough driver to make up the difference for a team that may not be ready to race for wins week in and week out.
In recent years, when RFR has turned to veterans for help, the team has shown flashes of its old self. Kenseth’s part-time return to RFR in 2018 wasn’t smooth, but he ended his run with two top-10 finishes. Ryan Newman should also be commended for dragging RFR’s No. 6 car to the playoffs in 2019. But Newman is in a decline of his own. Having won only one race in the last eight years, he is no longer in a place to put the Roush Fenway organization on his back and elevate the team’s performance. His departure from the No. 6 could mark the end of what has been a great career.
The story of Keselowski’s career, on the other hand, is far from over. It may take a season or two to reach the level of competitiveness he is currently at with Team Penske. But Keselowski has the time, experience and skill set to help turn Roush Fenway back into a contender. If he can take on Kenseth’s old role as the veteran team builder, there is no reason to think that we have seen the last of Keselowski in victory lane.
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