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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Win puts pressure on Hendrick to keep Keselowski for 2010, beyond

Prior to his big win last week, Hendrick Motorsports knew how important it was to hold on to Brad Keselowski for 2010 and the years ahead.

After his win, they really know it, and will probably do whatever it takes to keep him.

The wrinkle, or course, is that Mark Martin will likely return for one more year of full-time racing, leaving no room for Keselowski at Hendrick in 2010, even though he is clearly ready to run full-time in the Cup series. Now, negotiations have begun to keep Keselowski in the Hendrick camp.

On Friday at Richmond, here is what Keselowski had to say on the matter.
"I know that to make that next step, I need to run full time. I need to have a full-time ride at the Cup level to be a guy who can run for the Chase or take wins. So it's a matter of making that line up,” he said. “Opportunities or situations to make that work? I don't think you guys have time to hear them all. I've put some thought into it, but not a lot. The basics of it are that we still have a few months to work some other things out. Specifically I'm working with Hendrick Motorsports and owe it to them to see what they can work out.”

He’s probably exaggerating a bit when says there’s not enough time to list them all, but it’s clear there is much interest in the young man and Hendrick will be willing to employ whatever plots and schemes are necessary to prevent this young driver with a bright future from leaving his organization and joining with a rival.

Keselowski hinted that whatever happens, the Hendrick team will be involved in some way.
“I think the key part about this whole situation of where I'm at with contracts and next year is that you stick with what got you to where you're at. Having competitive cars and having support from HMS and being able to look at their data and talk to their drivers is what got me into victory lane on Sunday. It's hard to run from that, you know. But at the same time, at this point and at this time, there isn't a clear opportunity there. So we'll have to see how that plays out," Keselowski said Friday.

The options, as far as I can see, are pretty limited if Hendrick is involved.

Mark Martin could decide to let Keselowski have the #5 ride. It’s not likely, but you never know with Martin. Another unlikely, but interesting, scenario is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. could bring his Nationwide team up to Cup and Brad could race for him. Under this scenario, Hendrick would likely have to sell his 50 percent ownership in JR Motorsports to stay in the four-car limit that begins in 2010.

But the third option I see, which is the most likely situation if Martin returns to the #5 car, is Keselowski spending a year over at Stewart-Haas racing, a team that gets its cars and engines from the Hendrick organization and talks regularly with Hendrick about performance at the track. It’s like a part of the Hendrick team, even though the name is different.

By joining this team for a year, then moving to Hendrick, everybody wins. Hendrick doesn’t lose Keselowski. Brad gets a full-time ride in good equipment, and knows there’s a spot reserved for him at the main Hendrick team.

At the end of last year, Keselowski could have jumped over to the Penske team and been in a full-time Cup ride in 2009. He chose not to take that leap, and instead wait things out over at Hendrick.

Considering that Chrysler has declared bankruptcy and reportedly might be out of NASCAR soon (I’ll have more on that soon), he made a wise decision. There was no need for him to jump so quickly into Cup, especially with a team with a pretty shaky future. He will now have another full year of Nationwide racing under his belt, which can only help him do better wherever he lands in 2010.

While it’s clear he is talented, as evidenced by the Talladega win and his outstanding Nationwide results running against all the Cup guys each weekend, Keselowski is by no means a guaranteed star. Jamie McMurray won in the second Cup race of his career, but has been mediocre for most of his career since then.

But I don’t think Brad fits the McMurray mold, and neither does Rick Hendrick. If he’s a smart man, and all those championships tell me he is, he’ll work out whatever deal is necessary to keep Keselowski around, either directly or indirectly.

It’s the only option he really has. If he lets him go, someone like Joe Gibbs could snatch up Keselowski and he would become a dangerous opponent instead of an ally, and that’s not what Hendrick wants to see happen.


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