This Sunday (Nov. 7) at Phoenix Raceway, all eyes will be focused on the Championship 4, a final quartet of title-contending NASCAR Cup Series stars with a chance to secure the sport’s biggest prize.
Brad Keselowski won’t be one of them, which means his lengthy tenure at Team Penske will come to a quiet end after 312 miles (and possibly some overtime laps) in the Arizona desert.
But while his stint with one of modern auto racing’s marquee organizations won’t end with a walk-off title, it’s still a driver-team pairing worth reflecting on and celebrating as it reaches the finish line.
Team Penske confirmed in July that Keselowski’s time with the organization would wrap up at the conclusion of the 2021 season. He’ll move over to Roush Fenway Racing in 2022, entering into a driver-owner role with a minority stake in the organization that will see him trade one iconic Ford ride (Penske’s No. 2) for another (Roush’s No. 6). His crew chief for next year, current Chip Ganassi Racing signal caller Matt McCall, was announced on Tuesday.
Keselowski will be replaced by rising star Austin Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion and one of four contenders to claim another title in NASCAR’s second series this weekend in Phoenix. The young Ford prospect is as qualified as any to replace Keselowski, but he’ll have big shoes to fill.
A native of Michigan that worked his way into a ride with Penske after a stint with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, Keselowski might not be the most recognizable driver in the Penske No. 2’s NASCAR lineage – golden age viewers would be quick to suggest Rusty Wallace – but there’s a case to be made that he should be.
Penske first brought Keselowski into the fold in 2010 as a one-time Cup winner, having taken a shock win for Phoenix Racing at Talladega Superspeedway in the prior year. While his rookie season in Cup was a quiet one in the No. 12 Ford, he immediately delivered Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship when he claimed the 2010 Xfinity Series title.
The next year Keselowski took over the No. 2 and emerged as a genuine contender, claiming a fuel mileage win at Kansas Speedway in the spring and then triumphing at both Pocono Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway in the summer – the latter wins coming through injury as he recovered from a severely broken ankle in a testing crash at Road Atlanta.
Those early successes built up momentum to a genuine breakout year in 2012. Keselowski won five races, avoided calamity in what was then known as the Chase and outlasted Jimmie Johnson to claim Team Penske’s first Cup Series title. In just three years, Keselowski brought Penske championship success at the sport’s top two levels, placing longtime sponsor Miller Lite in the spotlight and adding to the legacy of the organization.
No more titles have followed for Keselowski in the ensuing nine years, but numerous other accolades have. He’s secured crown jewel wins in the Brickyard 400 (2018), Southern 500 (2018) and Coca-Cola 600 (2020). Keselowski scored Team Penske’s 500th overall win in September 2018 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The early Talladega triumph proved to be a sign of things to come. Keselowski has as many wins at the Alabama oval (six) as anyone not named Earnhardt. And his prowess hasn’t been reserved for the Talladega high banks, either. All told, Keselowski’s 67 victories for Team Penske are the most of any driver in the company’s lengthy history.
Even the wins don’t tell the full story, though. There have countless memories from Keselowski’s lengthy Penske tenure, both good and bad.
There was the horrible crash and ensuing rivalry with Carl Edwards in 2010 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, calling Kyle Busch an ass during driver introductions at Bristol Motor Speedway in the same year. Who can forget the iconic tweet of his backstretch view following Juan Pablo Montoya’s flaming crash into a jet dryer in 2012?
My view pic.twitter.com/RWn3xMn6
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) February 28, 2012
Keselowski met President Barack Obama at the White House in 2013 to celebrate his title win. He won the first race of the initial elimination playoff format in 2014, then followed it with a clutch Talladega win to avoid a Round of 12 exit and separate brawls with both Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. While he’s never raced in the tour, Keselowski did participate in a NTT IndyCar Series test at Road America in 2016.
The Michigander won in every season with the team after his winless 2010 campaign and made the Championship 4 twice during his Penske tenure, finishing fourth in 2017 and coming one spot short with a runner-up run in 2020.
He both created and won for his own Camping World Truck Series organization, Brad Keselowski Racing (BKR), even making an attempt at the tour’s Eldora Speedway dirt race in 2015 before shuttering the team in 2017. The program was an early home for Keselowski’s future replacement, Cindric, who scored his lone Truck Series win under the BKR banner at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2016.
It’s been easy to lose sight of as it’s happened, particularly with fellow star Joey Logano rising up as a Daytona 500 winner and champion as Keselowski’s teammate over the past nine years. But Keselowski has proven himself to be among the greatest drivers in Team Penske history over his 12 seasons with the organization.
With such consistent success over the years, it would be fair to question why Keselowski or Penske would want to go their separate ways. Keselowski acknowledged how tough such a decision was in July saying that “making the decision to part ways with Team Penske to embrace a new opportunity and challenge was a difficult one, and one I did not take lightly.”
Just how difficult it will be remains to be seen. Keselowski is arriving at a historic winner in Roush Fenway Racing, but the company hasn’t been a consistent contender since Edwards left for Joe Gibbs Racing after the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Roush has won just two races since, both on superspeedways with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2017. Ryan Newman pointed his way into the playoffs in 2019 and came within 100 yards of a Daytona 500 victory in 2020, but neither he or Chris Buescher have been able to consistently contend for wins and playoff positions.
Keselowski hopes to help play a role in turning the organization’s fortune around; first as a driver, then potentially as a key leadership figure down the road. If all goes well, this offseason’s move could be the first step in a lengthy NASCAR journey for Keselowski, lasting far beyond his driving years.
But before he goes, the 2012 champ is set for one final ride with Team Penske.
Whether you’ve loved him or loathed him, it’s an era worth remembering and appreciating as it draws to a close.
I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of something that makes saying goodbye so hard. I will forever be thankful for what we were able to accomplish together these last 12 years. It’s been an incredible ride, @Team_Penske. pic.twitter.com/SgsQ294TXR
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) November 3, 2021
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