Why Penske Racing Was Wise to Lock Up Brad Keselowski

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2013

It's been more like sad time than Miller time this season for Brad Keselowski.
It's been more like sad time than Miller time this season for Brad Keselowski.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There's no question it's been a tough year for Brad Keselowski.

First came two penalties for mechanical violations with his No. 2 Ford in separate races that cost him 31 driver points in the Sprint Cup standings.

Had he not lost those points, it's likely we'd be talking about Keselowski in the Chase for the Sprint Cup right now, attempting to defend last season's championship.

Unfortunately, the 29-year-old Michigan native fell short of making this year's Chase, relegating him to a one-and-done champion status—at least until he gets another chance next season.

Almost as bad, Keselowski still has yet to win a race this season. That's a true oddity when compared to the five wins he claimed last season en route to his Cup title.

Even worse, look at Keselowski's stats from last season compared to this season:

2012—five wins, 13 top-fives, 23 top-10s, a 10.1 average finish per race.

2013—zero wins, seven top-fives, 12 top-10s and a 16.0 average finish per race.

If that isn't striking and glaring, I don't know what is.

And that's why Keselowski is not defending his championship this season.

Admittedly, it has to be tough to be Keselowski these days. Watch him on TV and you will likely see him with more of a sullen look than the almost trademark smiling face he flashed constantly in 2012.

Missing the Chase—and the way he did it—has to be weighing on Keselowski's mind as he tries to salvage a season he'd rather forget, one year after a season that will forever be unforgettable.

But Keselowski finally got some good news earlier this week—and boy, could he and his team ever use some—when both he and primary sponsor Miller Lite signed contract extensions to stay together and with Penske Racing through the 2017 season.

Now that that's out of the way, maybe we can see Sad Brad get back to Bad Brad next season—and I call him Bad in a good way.

Granted, last season was nothing short of a magical and miracle season for the kid from just outside Detroit. He quickly became a poster boy for young up-and-coming drivers, inspired them with his "if I can do it, anyone can" positive attitude, became the biggest social media magnet in the sport and, oh yes, he could drive the wheels off a race car.

This season, not so much.

I have to give a lot of credit to team owner Roger Penske and other high-ranking officials of the organization who worked to get Keselowski signed, sealed and delivered for another four seasons.

Other owners may have let the defending champion go elsewhere. Need we forget about the first Chase winner in 2004, Kurt Busch?

Less than a year after winning it all, he was unceremoniously dumped two races early from Roush Racing when it became known he was going to, ironically enough in this case, Penske Racing the following season to replace legendary and eventual NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace in the infamous No. 2 "Blue Deuce."

But Penske didn't become the most successful team owner in motorsports for nothing. He saw something in Keselowski when he stole him away from Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports several years ago, and Keselowski has paid him back in spades for the belief Penske had in him.

Just in case he forgot what last season was like, here's a reminder for Brad, and something to shoot for again in 2014.
Just in case he forgot what last season was like, here's a reminder for Brad, and something to shoot for again in 2014.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Penske saw something in the way the young kid had a fire and a true blue-collar approach that not only attracted countless fans, but finally rewarded Penske with the first Cup championship in his ownership career after more than 30 years of fielding a NASCAR team.

That's something that Wallace, Busch, Bobby Allison, Ryan Newman, David Stremme and even Jeremy Mayfield were never able to do.

Penske is above reproach when it comes to finding, judging and—most importantly—keeping talent, particularly young talent. He's built more driver careers than anyone else out there.

Just look at the superstar lineup of drivers who have driven for him over the years:

Remember Rick Mears? How about Emerson Fittipaldi? Al Unser Sr. and Jr. and Bobby Unser? Mark Donohue? Helio Castroneves? Gil de Ferran? Danny Sullivan? And of course in NASCAR, Wallace, Newman, Busch, Allison and others.

Penske even took a chance on kids like A.J. Allmendinger and, more recently, Joey Logano, believing they were the real deal and deserved a break.

And how about Sam Hornish Jr., who Penske has remained loyal to over several years of trying to turn the former IndyCar and Indy 500 champ into a Sprint Cup star (although it appears Hornish may be looking elsewhere for 2014)?

That's why Penske wanted to keep Keselowski—who has been with the organization going on five seasons—locked in with Miller Lite, which has been a Penske sponsor for nearly three decades (including over 20 years as primary financier of the No. 2 car).

While Keselowski's fans are disappointed at what happened to him this season, and erstwhile critics may say Keselowski just got lucky last season, the fact remains that Keselowski has a tremendous amount of talent that will shine again.

He simply had an off-year in 2013. Don't read anything into it; it's nothing more and nothing less.

But now, with the security of knowing he's locked in for the next four seasons, especially with how he and crew chief Paul Wolfe can start working on things for next season while still racing in the remaining events this season, Keselowski should be back in a big way in 2014.

He's too good not to be. And that's why he's staying put in the Penske family, just another in a long line of smart decisions The Captain (Penske's nickname) has made in more than a half-century of racing and race team ownership.


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