Lost in the celebration of a popular, new champion was a driver who had the car and the ability to earn his second NASCAR Cup Series title. Brad Keselowski finished one spot short in last season’s king-making finale at Phoenix Raceway, a loss that still nags him.
“I wouldn’t say I’m not over it,” Keselowski said. “To be quite honest, I don’t like losing. I certainly don’t like being that close.”
Chase Elliott’s margin of victory over Keselowski was 2.7 seconds, but consider the day the runner-up finisher had. His car — the vehicle that walloped fields in New Hampshire and Richmond — was the fastest of the championship race per timing and scoring data. He turned in a pass differential five positions better than his statistical expectation and gained four spots on four restarts from the non-preferred groove.
Ultimately, his above-par passing failed to overcome a dud from his pit crew, which cost him 13 positions out of caution flag stops; his final turn as the race’s leader ended after lap 195, on pit road, not on the racetrack.
“I take solace in feeling like I did everything I could do,” Keselowski said. “Losing hurts way more when you feel like you left something on the table personally. I don’t feel like I left anything on the table at Phoenix. That helped me quite a bit but still, obviously, I know that I was this close to realizing my dream of a second championship.
“But, you know, not close enough.”
His pathway to championship eligibility in the season finale began once NASCAR made Phoenix the host of the championship race, the day Team Penske unofficially became a specialist on 750-horsepower tracks, reallocating its R&D efforts onto the track type that now matters most.
The aggressive refocusing — in hindsight, a market inefficiency dutifully exploited — was confirmed by Travis Geisler, the organization’s competition director, during the weeklong buildup to last November’s event.
Both Keselowski and Joey Logano benefited, securing spots in the Championship 4. The brand of speed they displayed in Phoenix — a dominance that launched conspiracy theories from those who didn’t recognize the three fastest 750-horsepower cars all season as eligible for the championship and motivated by a lucrative payout — made the organization-wide focus a worthwhile effort.
It’s obvious Keselowski wants more. That consists of all-around dominance, which includes 550-horsepower tracks. At Homestead, a track fitting that bill, he was the lone Penske driver running inside the top 10 near the conclusion of a race where all four affiliated teams missed on long-run setup. A bizarre pit strategy, a lottery-odds bet on a caution, placed him on pit road with 30 laps to go. The green-flag run continued, making the strategy at a track with 3-second degradation on worn tires less viable by the lap. The result was a 16th-place finish for the car ranked fourth in median lap time.
Last weekend, Penske supplied him a car capable of the second-best median lap time, the fastest flag-to-flag car he’s had on a 1.5-mile facility since NASCAR shifted its biggest tracks to 550 horsepower in early 2019. His effort was relentless, especially on restarts, where he gained 17 positions when restarting from inside the top 14 — the biggest single-race net gain under that parameter by any driver since 2017 — and 27 positions overall, including his 18th-to-eighth haul on lap 185. He finished second to Kyle Larson, but it was a run possibly symbolic of a new, meaningful strength.
“I felt like all along Vegas was the clearest indicator of what we’re going to see for a lot of the season,” Keselowski said of the tracks representing the first few events on the 2021 schedule. “Both of these races, Vegas and (this) week in Phoenix, I think they represent what it’s going to take to win the championship, being good on tracks of these two types.”
For Keselowski, there’s more than a championship on the line this season. He settled for a one-year contract extension last year at a reduced salary, in part due to reactionary cutbacks as a result of COVID-19. While a suitor with the wherewithal and desire to rival a Penske offer might not be realistic, a year in which he reminds the industry of his status — he’s one of just seven drivers who regularly wins multiple races in a season — could steer his take-home pay back in a direction to his liking. He’s worth $4.715 million per year on the open market, based entirely on on-track production, a valuation that can increase as a result of banner season. Such an effort would prove timely, ahead of a period in his career containing prime earning potential:
At 37, he’s two years from what is, on average, a Cup Series driver’s statistical peak. It’s possible he has two more big-money contracts in front of him, but whatever he signs this season represents the theoretical max in terms of value and production, his best chance to earn the most money he’ll ever make driving a race car.
A championship and a high win tally — observable barometers for success in auto racing — are not completely within his control in a team sport too often mis-categorized as an individual endeavor, though his influence is paramount. With a car ranked as the seventh fastest for all of 2020, the slowest machine among the Championship 4, he registered four victories.
His key peripheral statistics, ranging from above average to elite in categories like initial track position — his average running spot after one lap — restart offense, restart defense and surplus passing, created a well-rounded team in regards to track position procurement, malleable to most track types and race-breaking situations. His average finish splits between races without late restarts and those containing one or more were 7.9 and 12.2; he was one of just three drivers to surpass 13th-place averages in both scenarios.
The team’s most recognizable weakness was position retention on green-flag pit cycles, represented on the spider chart above as “GFPC Defense.” With crew chief Jeremy Bullins, Keselowski’s running position was retained on 44.4% of qualified cycles, 20 percentage points below the series-wide rate. Through four races this season, that rate is at 57.1%, the best mark by a Keselowski crew chief since 2018.
The driver has made his livelihood as a jack of all trades but a master of none. If the details beyond his control have indeed seen a turn for the better, a standout year is in the cards. Such an occurrence would alter Keselowski’s career narrative, enhancing a value that feels perennially underestimated.