Decisions made by Brad Keselowski over the next few weeks have the potential to shape the rest of his young career in motorsports. He is to meet with Rick Hendrick this week to discuss opportunities for Keselowski to enter into a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup series with a Hendrick-associated team.
Hendrick has spoken very highly of Keselowski and his abilities in the past. Its obvious he wants the young driver to stay in the Hendrick "family".
"I think that Brad's proven he's got the talent," Hendrick said. "He's done a lot for our organization both with JR Motorsports and the Nationwide car. He's the future of our company."
At the moment, though, Hendrick Motorsports doesn't have room for Keselowski. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are all locked into long-term contracts with Hendrick Motorsports, and Mark Martin is going to be around for at least another year. So, if Keselowski wants to drive full-time in Sprint Cup in 2010, he will have to look elsewhere.
Of course, Rick Hendrick wants Keselowski driving for a Hendrick satellite team. And Keselowski would like to stay under the Hendrick umbrella. But if a lucrative opportunity opens up to Keselowski that does not involve Hendrick, he may feel the need to take it.
A large majority of the success Keselowski has experienced in NASCAR's
top touring series has been with JR Motorsports. Getting that call from Dale Jr. was Keselowski's proverbial "big break" in the sport.
Keselowski is already familiar with the crew members at JRM. He has a good relationship with crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. that could translate to success in a Cup car for JRM. The concept of fielding a Sprint Cup car for Brad under the JRM banner has already been considered.
"That's something that Dale and Kelley are looking at," Hendrick said recently on the matter, "That's a possibility."
The negative side to this is that any Sprint Cup team fielded by JR Motorsports would be built from scratch. The team would naturally receive significant technical support from Hendrick in the same manner as Stewart-Haas Racing.
But unless Dale Earnhardt, Jr. brought on some new personnel, JR Motorsports would be lacking of engineers and crew members with significant experience in building and setting up cars for the Sprint Cup series.
The team would also have no footing in the owner's standings going into the 2010 season, meaning that if they wrecked during a qualifying session or found themselves unable to find the necessary speed early in the season, the team could miss races, placing Brad and his new team in a hole before they can even get started good.
Brad Keselowski won his first Sprint Cup as driving for Phoenix Racing, a team run by longtime NASCAR owner James Finch. The deal came together because Finch was looking for someone to drive a part-time schedule in his No. 09 car and Rick Hendrick suggested Keselowski.
Given the success Keselowski has had, it is possible that Rick Hendrick and James Finch may work together to run Brad Keselowski full-time in this car in 2010 in an attempt to achieve even more success.
If this scenario occurs, Keselowski's full-time debut in the Cup series may be hurt by the performance of this #09 team. While Keselowski and they No. 09 team was able to win at Talladega in this car, they have not been as successful at more handling-dependent tracks.
Thanks to his win at Talladega, Brad Keselowski became qualified to drive in the 2009 All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Starting 10th, Brad swiftly dropped to the rear of the field and only finished ahead of those drivers that received DNFs.
This came only a week after Brad steadily moved up through the field from a bad starting position at Darlington and finished 7th driving the No. 25 car for Hendrick Motorsports.
The No. 09 car has also had trouble qualifying for races and has been little more than a "start and park" entry when Keselowski has not been behind the wheel. Even with added technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, the team will still be under-funded and unable to hire the level of engineering personnel employed by HMS.
And, like a JRM entry, Brad would be starting the 2010 season outside the top-35. Definitely a recipe for missing races if the team can't improve their performance during the off-season.
One of the most interesting stories of the year has been the performance of Stewart-Haas Racing. In the past, Haas-CNC Racing has never been a contender to even win races, much less compete for championships.
Since Tony Stewart has overhauled the team from the ground up, though, they have found the means to be a serious contender.
In the past, when asked about fielding a third car in addition to the two driven by he and Ryan Newman, Stewart has seemed hesitant, even when it came to the subject of adding Keselowski to his lineup.
“If we decided to expand, we’d look at everybody that’s available,” Tony Stewart said previously, “Obviously, Brad is one of those guys, but right now we’re still a two-car team and we’ve got two good drivers. So right now, we don’t have an opening.”
Stewart had said that he might change his mind if his two current teams proved themselves to be championship-worthy. With himself leading the points in the No. 14 and Ryan Newman sitting fourth in the points in the No. 39, it would seem that Stewart-Haas has achieved that goal. And accordingly, Stewart recently seems to have changed his tune.
“I wanted to make sure we had two cars that were competitive and had a chance to win a championship,” he said Friday at Infineon, "I’m proud of the fact that I think we’re at that point. So if the right situation came along, we would entertain it.”
Did this change of heart come purely from having both his cars in the top-4 in the standings? Or has Stewart already been talking to Rick Hendrick about the possibility of fielding a third car for Keselowski?
Either way, Stewart-Haas seems to be the best opportunity Brad has at the moment. Stewart obviously knows how to assemble winning teams given the immediate success of both his cars.
In addition, Stewart-Haas is one of the few options Brad has that would guarantee him a spot in the top-35 going into the 2010 season. We've seen NASCAR allow team owners to transfer owner's points between teams in the past. Stewart could easily give Keselowski's new team the owner's points from his own No. 14 team.
Stewart himself could rely on the champion's provisional afforded to him by his 2005 championship to ensure that he does not miss any of the first five races of 2010. The primary drawback to Keselowski driving an SHR entry would be the potentially temporary nature of his stay there.
It is assumed that Keselowski would move to Hendrick Motorsports once a ride came open. Would Stewart want to start a third team for a driver he knows will probably jump ship in a few years?
There still exists a small chance that Keselowski may end up driving for Hendrick Motorsports after all next season. A recurring story this year has been Jeff Gordon's continuous back problems.
There are some weekends that it barely gets mentioned at all, but other weekends it seems like Gordon may genuinely be in pain. There have been rumors that Gordon may be retiring as soon as the end of the 2010 season.
If his back problems escalate between now and the end of the season, though, it may prevent Gordon from being able to run a full-time schedule in 2010. Keselowski would be the natural replacement in Gordon's ride if he did retire.
Given the fact that Gordon has been strong this year and remains in contention for the championship, though, do not expect him to give up on his Sprint Cup career without a fight.
Another extreme longshot for Keselowski to end up at Hendrick lies with Keselowski's own mentor. Perhaps the biggest story of the year has been the struggles that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has endured. Struggles that have led to a much-anticipated crew chief change.
Many continue to claim that Earnhardt is not deserving of his ride and should be replaced, possibly by Keselowski. Even fewer say that JR Motorsports may field a Cup team, but with Dale Jr. behind the wheel instead of Keselowski.
Naturally, the chances of any of this actually happening are more than likely extremely remote, given Earnhardt's contractual agreements with sponsors AMP Energy and National Guard and with Hendrick Motorsports.
It is highly unlikely that there will be any changes to the #88 team, other than another potential crew chief change if Rick Hendrick finds a better fit for Junior than Lance McGrew.
There have been very few rumors so far of non-Hendrick related teams expressing an interest in Keselowski. He was said to have been offered the No. 12 car by Roger Penske near the end of the 2008 season, but Keselowski claims that no official offer was made; he has said that he simply toured the Penske Racing shop but received no official contract offer.
Either way, the inconsistency of most of the Penske teams (with the exception of Kurt Busch's No. 2 Miller Lite team) would seem to qualify it as a definite downgrade from a Hendrick-related ride.
There have been rumors of a fourth car at Joe Gibbs Racing. If Gibbs were to attempt to field a fourth car, it is possible that he may look outside the organization for a driver to fill the seat.
In the recent past, however, Gibbs has seemed to place a strong emphasis on driver development programs. Both Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano started out racing for Joe Gibbs in lower-level series before being offered rides in his Sprint Cup team. The only exception to this was Kyle Busch, whose resume coming into JGR was much stronger than Keselowski's is at this point.
With Brad Coleman waiting in the wings for JGR, it seems unlikely that you will see Gibbs hire any free agent, including Keselowski, to drive a fourth entry next year.
Although there have been other teams rumored to have openings next season, there few that would be on equal footing to the more lucrative Hendrick-related opportunities that are open to Keselowski, especially where Stewart-Haas Racing is concerned.
Given the opportunities that have been presented to Keselowski so far by driving for Hendrick-affiliated teams, it is doubtful that he would turn his back on offers they presented him with to go elsewhere.
Thank you for reading. This is my first attempt at doing an article for B/R. Being a huge Keselowski fan, this seemed like a natural direction for me to go in. I look forward to writing more in the future.