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Keselowski and Hendrick: What might have been

On April 18, 2009, Mark Martin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. It was the 36th NASCAR premier series win for the 50-year-old driver and his first with team owner Rick Hendrick.

 

A week and a day later, Brad Keselowski won the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was the first career win for the 25-year-old, and the first premier series victory for independent car owner James Finch.

 

Two distinctly different races won by two distinctly different drivers. Martin’s NASCAR career was beginning to wind down; Keselowski’s, on the other hand, appeared to have only just begun.

 

But there was one string that tied the two together — Hendrick Motorsports.

 

HMS was home to Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. And it was expected by many to be the future home of the up-and-coming kid from Rochester Hills, Michigan.

 

But a collection of factors that came together throughout the course of that season altered the racing landscape as well as the career path of Keselowski.

 

It would be nearly three years before the next driver change at HMS. By then Keselowski had not only found a new home, but he was also on his way to winning the Sprint Cup championship.

 

‘I WAS NOT GOING TO LOSE’

 

The sun was out and the grandstands were packed when the 2009 Aaron’s 499, the season’s ninth Sprint Cup race, went green for the final time.

 

As race leader Ryan Newman tried to keep Earnhardt Jr., the crowd favorite, in check, Keselowski darted to the inside behind Carl Edwards on the track’s massive backstretch. It was a move that didn’t seem to mean much at the time.

 

But at the start-finish line with two laps remaining, Edwards and Keselowski shot to the outside entering Turn 1.

 

“Here they come; look at the 99 and …” NASCAR on FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip began.

 

Brad Keselowski,” lead announcer Mike Joy and co-analyst Larry McReynolds chimed in.

 

When the white flag appeared, Edwards and Keselowski had caught and were beginning to pull away from Newman and Earnhardt Jr.

 

Racing back through the tri-oval, Keselowski turned his No. 09 Chevrolet to the outside, and then quickly dropped to the bottom as Edwards moved up to block. Realizing the bottom lane was now open, Edwards reacted quickly — but not quickly enough.

 

Contact sent the No. 99 Ford spinning. Edwards’ car came off the track briefly and was beginning to settle back onto the track it was struck by Newman’s Chevrolet. The impact sent Edwards roof-first into the frontstretch catch fence.

 

Meanwhile, Keselowski kept his foot in the gas, racing across the finish line for the win just ahead of Earnhardt Jr.

 

“I was not going to lose,” Keselowski said in his post-race winner’s interview. “I was not going to lift and (I was going to) hold my ground and consequences be damned.”

 

A full-time competitor at the time for JR Motorsports (which, coincidentally, counts Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick among its ownership group) in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Keselowski said he didn’t know what the future held after his first premier series win.

 

“I know I don’t have anything locked in,” he said. “That’s really all I can say … I don’t have a job secured for next year, and everything to this point has been wait-and-see. I know this certainly can’t hurt.”

 

But behind the scenes, moves were already underway. Finch’s Phoenix Racing, which purchased it engines from HMS, had put Keselowski in the car at the suggestion of Hendrick. And the JRM/Hendrick pipeline, which grooms talent in the lower series to help restock the Sprint Cup program, was taking root.

 

Keselowski had made two starts for Hendrick the previous year, and would make seven all together in ’09, in addition to five races with Finch.

 

Perhaps his future wasn’t as cloudy as it appeared.

 

“Rick had come out and told me, actually had made it a point to say to the media that he thought I was a future driver at Hendrick,” Keselowski told NASCAR.com recently.

 

There was only one problem.

 

SWAN SONG?

 

On July 4, 2008, HMS officials announced that Martin had signed a two-year agreement to drive the organization’s No. 5 Chevrolet.

 

According to the news release, Martin, who would run a full schedule in 2009, would “run a partial Sprint Cup schedule … in 2010, sharing the No. 5 Chevy with a to-be-determined second driver.”

 

By most accounts, that driver was expected to be Keselowski.

 

But in May of ’09, less than three weeks after Martin’s Phoenix victory, HMS officials announced a revision to the ’08 agreement. The veteran driver would return in 2010 to once again run the entire season.

 

With Keselowski waiting in the wings and Martin winning and agreeing to return the following year, “Rick was kind of half pregnant,” Keselowski said. “He (was) stuck.

 

“My feeling was, after I had won Talladega, I’m going to get this 5 car ride partially next year, pair it with something else, let’s go. I didn’t know what it was going to be. We’ll figure it out; let’s go.”

 

A phone call and subsequent meeting with Hendrick, however, changed all that.

 

“I was kind of expecting more of a ‘Hey, we’re going to expedite the process of clearing out the rest of this,’ ” Keselowski said of the meeting, “And instead I got a ‘Hey, I don’t have a ride for you. You need to figure something else out. I’ll try to help.’

 

“That was late April, early May of that year. My intent … was to give him that time to kind of make right on it somehow, find a ride because he had made me the promise that I would have that car. It didn’t sit all that well, but I understood the circumstances and so forth.”

 

Months passed and Keselowski busied himself with his full-time XFINITY Series effort at JRM while making a handful of Sprint Cup starts for Hendrick and Finch.

 

Hendrick, in the meantime, was exploring the various avenues that might keep Keselowski in the HMS camp.

 

Possible scenarios included Stewart-Haas Racing, at the time a two-team effort, and Red Bull Racing. Consideration was even given to fielding a Sprint Cup entry out of the JR Motorsports shop, according to the owner.

 

But the pieces didn’t fit and as the summer wore on, Keselowski’s future remained uncertain.

 

“I wanted him to wait a year,” Hendrick told NASCAR.com. “… I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that Mark had done so well, and I had tried to talk (Mark) into staying.

 

“I’ve told all our guys, the first time I sat down with Brad he impressed me because he was so intense about the whole car and wanted to be involved in everything. He was just so committed. I told our guys he’s got the right attitude about racing and driving. I just needed him to wait.”

 

Waiting, though, wasn’t part of Keselowski’s plan.

 

“My perception is a driver is a lot like a perishable fruit,” Keselowski said. “You’ve got so much time, then he spoils and goes bad. There are a lot of variables, much like anything.”

 

PENSKE COMES CALLING

 

The Keselowski family has always been involved in racing. Brad’s father Bob was an ARCA Series standout and a former winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

 

Ron Keselowski, an uncle, scored two top-five finishes in 68 premier series starts while older brother Brian Keselowski has one or more starts in all three of NASCAR’s national series.

 

“We knew the Keselowski name from being here in Detroit,” Walt Czarnecki, an executive vice president at Penske Corp., said. “His dad, his uncle, all that. They would run out at MIS (Michigan International Speedway) when (Penske) owned the track.”

 

But it was a business associate, lawyer/agent John Caponigro, who brought up the young driver’s name during a conversation in 2009.

 

“We thought he was committed to Hendrick,” Czarnecki said. “He’d been on loan to James Finch to run several races. But some things were changing.”

 

Conversations with Keselowski ensued, in Michigan as well as Mooresville, North Carolina, where Team Penske is headquartered. “All this time,” Czarnecki said, “Still having this somewhat uncertain situation with Mr. Hendrick.”

 

Team Penske had grown from a two-team to a three-team organization in ’08, fielding cars for drivers Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr.

 

In ’09 Newman departed to join owner/driver Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing and 32-year-old David Stremme was brought on board to fill the open seat.

 

But the Keselowski opportunity was intriguing, according to Czarnecki.

 

“We’ve tried to sign on what we consider to be the best available young drivers with a great deal of potential that we could mold and have them grow in our organization,” he said. “And I think that Brad certainly fit that description.

 

“But above and beyond that, he had a bigger vision as to what role he wanted to play in terms of the development of the team. … Just how he saw different things coming together …

 

“Some of it may have been a little unrealistic; some of it was certainly the enthusiasm of a young man who had a goal in mind. … But he had this great enthusiasm and he had this great desire and this great commitment. And that appealed to us.”

 

With the Hendrick effort seemingly stalled, Keselowski went back to Penske with a request — to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series.

 

In addition to its Sprint Cup effort, Team Penske was fielding one full-time XFINITY Series team with driver Justin Allgaier. Expanding that program to two teams running all the races was problematic, given the economy at the time.

 

Told such a scenario was unlikely, Keselowski was left to consider his few available options. But Penske officials continued to work until enough of the appropriate pieces were in place.

 

“Sure enough, Roger called me one night and said ‘Alright, I’ve got it put together,’ ” Keselowski said. “It kind of caught me off guard. I was sold. That’s it; he made it happen.”

 

“I couldn’t sit around and wait. … Roger had gone above and beyond to put something together that I felt like was the opportunity I needed. … The economy was on its way down fast; Roger (through his various businesses) had a lot of immunities to the economy. Rick made it very clear to me that he was not going to invest himself without having a sponsor, and the economy was not in a spot where he could facilitate that.”

 

Hendrick had been aware of the Penske interest from the beginning, having had conversations with his fellow team owner about Keselowski’s status.

 

“Roger called me and asked me could he talk to him,” Hendrick said. “I didn’t want to stand in his way. Brad’s a hell of a talent. It was a timing issue.

 

“It’s worked out for him. At his age it would have been nice if we could have kept him. … If I got a call from Roger and I was in his spot I would have done exactly what he did.”

 

POSTSCRIPT

 

On Sept. 1, 2009, Team Penske officials announced that the organization had signed Keselowski to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series beginning the following season.

 

Since then, Keselowski has won 17 Sprint Cup races, 28 XFINITY Series races and championships in both series.

 

“I don’t want to sound mercenary but he brought us our first Sprint Cup championship (in 2012),” Czarnecki said. “Because that vision that he outlined, we tried to work with him and bring people along, bring people into the organization, have him work with people like (crew chief) Paul Wolfe, it was really the realization of that vision. That’s what it (has) meant.

 

“And his intensity hasn’t changed.”

 

Former teammates Busch and Hornish have departed, and fellow driver AJ Allmendinger has come and gone. Keselowski, now 32, is the veteran of a Penske group that now includes 25-year-old teammate Joey Logano.

 

“I wasn’t looking to switch,” Keselowski said. “If things would have gone the way they were supposed to go before Mark won that race at Phoenix, I would still be there.”