How hard is it to be at the top of the heap in the Cup Series these days? Ask Brad Keselowski. By all counts, Keselowski had a stellar 2017 season. He won three times, and his 15 top 5s are the third most he’s scored in his eight full seasons in the Series. He had more top-5 runs than Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick, but he slotted in behind both of them and champion Martin Truex Jr. after finishing seventh in the season finale. Yeah, it’s pretty hard.
Keselowski has been there as the 2012 champion, and it’s a bit surprising he hasn’t been back. Keselowski always seems to be in the mix, and 2017 wasn’t any different. He posted nine top 5s in the first half of the season. His only real Achilles heel was Bristol, where he finished 29th or worse in both races despite running at the end.
But one statistic isn’t quite as nice as the others: Keselowski’s five failures to finish are the most he’s suffered since his rookie season. All five were for crashes, which can be taken in two different ways: He was uncharacteristically unlucky or he was too aggressive. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Keselowski is aggressive, and that can sometimes get him (or someone else) in trouble. But he usually knows where to draw the line, and that’s a key to his success.
The other key, of course, is Team Penske. Keselowski spent his formative years as a Hendrick development driver but signed with Penske for his Cup Series effort. It was a match made in heaven. Team Penske had come close to titles but fallen just short. Keselowski delivered.
Keselowski, meanwhile, is more than just a wheelman: He has input on his team, handpicking Joey Logano as a teammate after the 2012 season. The move has benefited both men. They work closely together, perhaps more closely than any tandem of drivers Team Penske has had in the Cup ranks, and that shows up in the results for both drivers.
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The team has been Ford’s flagship team for the last couple of seasons, though it could be argued that they have to share the dock with Stewart-Haas Racing after that team switched to the Blue Oval stable last year. In 2017, both Keselowski and Logano visited Victory Lane in Penske-built Fords, as did Ryan Blaney, the youngster driving for satellite Wood Brothers Racing. Blaney was impressive enough that Penske expanded to a third team for 2018 so it could keep him in the fold.
How does adding a third team affect Keselowski? Blaney’s team adds a third source of information every week, and while there may be some growing pains, they shouldn’t be too serious or long-lasting. Blaney was essentially a third team member last year given the level of support Wood Brothers Racing had with Team Penske, and the team seems to be up to the task.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe is also a huge part of the No. 2 team’s success; he and Keselowski are one of the series’ longest-running and most successful partnerships. Wolfe came on board with Keselowski in 2011; together, they have visited Victory Lane 23 times since. Wolfe, a former racer, puts formidable cars on the track and backs them up with strategy; for his part, Keselowski gives detailed feedback throughout a race, which in turn helps Wolfe make his cars even faster.
While longtime sponsor Miller Lite scales back in 2018 to 11 races, Discount Tire, which has partnered with Team Penske’s XFINITY Series program for several years, immediately stepped up to fill most of the void, adding 10 Cup races on the No. 2.
Will Keselowski contend for a title in 2018? Almost certainly. But he’ll need to find a little something extra for the No. 2 to be No. 1.