Early in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season the rumor mill was churning regarding the future of Brad Keselowski as his contract with Team Penske was set to expire at the end of the campaign. Some had him penciled in as the replacement for the retiring Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports with others suggesting that he would ultimately get a long-term extension that would allow him to finish out his career with his current team. About midway through the year, however, both of those ways of thinking were proven to be incorrect as the 36-year-old driver did indeed re-sign with Team Penske, but only for one additional season.
Now, the 2012 Cup Series champion finds himself in much the same situation he was in one year ago. He is entering a season with a contract that will expire at year’s end with rumors circulating as to what will become of his career. For that matter, there is even the possibility of the No. 48 at HMS being an available option as that car’s current driver, Alex Bowman, is also in the final year of his contract.
So what will Team Penske do with Brad Keselowski going forward?
Obviously, one option is to re-sign him again. After all, the Rochester Hills, Michigan native has been one of the most dependable drivers in the NASCAR garage and this has been one of the most successful pairings in racing over the past decade. Keselowski has scored a total of 34 wins at the sport’s top level throughout his career(33 with Team Penske), with eight of his ten seasons driving for that organization resulting in multiple-win seasons.
Team Penske nor Keselowski could not go wrong by renewing their deal and keeping the proven veteran behind the wheel of one of the Roger Penske-owned company’s Ford machines.
However, a recent trend in NASCAR seems to be for teams to look at younger drivers in order to build for the future. Hendrick Motorsports, for example, boasts a four-driver lineup with an average age just over 25 years. Stewart-Haas Racing just replaced 41-year-old Clint Bowyer with 26-year-old Chase Briscoe after adding 22-year-old Cole Custer to its Cup Series lineup last year.
It appears as if the market is diminishing for the more experienced drivers.
And more, Team Penske has the 22-year-old defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion in the person of Austin Cindric waiting in the wings. Some might speculate that the success of the young driver, who happens to be the son of a highly placed Team Penske executive, might have been the primary reason Keselowski was only given a one-year contract extension.
Of course, there are other possibilities for Cindric should Keselowski be retained beyond 2021. Team Penske could expand from its current three-car stable to a four-car operation in the future. Or, the rising star could be placed in the Wood Brothers famed No. 21 Ford considering that the legendary team is closely aligned with the Penske organization, and a driver in Matt DiBenedetto who also has a contract set to expire at the end of this current season.
So then, back to the question of what Team Penske should do with Keselowski when his contract runs out.
Logic can be found in both keeping the proven champion and in letting him go.
Obviously, the Penske operation could move to keep Keselowski in the fold by offering him a big contract at some point this season so as to avoid the inevitable speculation bound to come along whenever a former NASCAR champion and proven race winner is nearing the end of his term. At his current age, it is likely that the driver who visited victory lane four times in 2020 still has several good years ahead of him.
And more, the chemistry within the team’s driver ranks appears to be solid as Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney seem to work well together. Breaking that trio up then adding a new person to the mix could potentially hurt future performance.
But on the other hand, a Keselowski renewal will probably come with a high price tag in a time when sponsors are becoming harder to find. And as stated before, Cindric appears to be an heir apparent within the Team Penske stable. Another year of seasoning on the NASCAR Xfinity Series should have him ready to move up to the top level. That provides strong bargaining chip for the Ford team as they negotiate with their current driver.
Cindric, at least initially, would likely be a drop off from the veteran Keselowski. But with the trend in NASCAR being for organizations to hire younger drivers, a driver who, while still very competitive, might have his most productive years behind him could be considered expendable.
Also consider, however, that the choice may not be Penske’s at all. It had been rumored that Keselowski was being considered as a potential replacement for Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports, and he still could be. As stated earlier, Alex Bowman, the current driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has only one year remaining on his contract. If he should not be renewed by HMS, that could clear the way for Keselowski to take the seat.
Logic says that in the short term, keeping Keselowski is the right thing to do for Penske. This is a driver who will win more races and could even capture another title before the end of his career as a number of drivers have been highly successful well beyond the age of 36 years.
Please also consider reading: Pivotal year for HMS teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman
At the same time, another line of thinking might say that not re-signing Keselowski could be the right thing for Penske to do. If the price tag is too high or if they, as an organization, feel as if other options might suit them better then it may be time to move on. While this relationship has been a good one, all good things do eventually come to an end. And more, sometimes trying to hold on to something for too long proves to be costly in the long term.
This writer is one who very much believes in loyalty and sticking with that which has proven to work well. The logic that says to re-sign Keselowski seems to be the safest move and the one that will produce the best results over the next few seasons. A proven veteran driver who has yet to reach the age at which NASCAR stars tend to peak is almost certainly a better option than a rookie who has yet to win anything at the top level.
But this writer is not the person calling the shots. As always, sponsorship will likely play the key role here.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook