Only 2.74 seconds. That's what separated Brad Keselowski from the NASCAR Cup Series title in 2020. Keselowski finished second to Chase Elliott in the championship race by 2.74 seconds, but that doesn't really describe the season Keselowski put together.
In a year in which the conversation was dominated by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, Keselowski was the driver those two had to look out for. With wins at Charlotte, Bristol, Loudon and Richmond, Keselowski was there at the end almost every single week. Only Harvick had more top-10 finishes than Keselowski's 24. His 10.1 average finish fell short only to Harvick and Hamlin as well.
Keselowski, who turns 37 just before the 2021 season kicks off, is in the sweet spot of his Cup career right now. He's had a couple of seasons with more wins than the four he had last year — five wins in his 2012 championship year and six in 2014 — but he's grown more and more consistent in the last five years, winning at least three races each year since 2016. His points finishes don't necessarily reflect his overall strength; the playoff system has meant that advancing or not isn't necessarily indicative of a driver's performance.
Keselowski signed a one-year extension with Team Penske for the 2021 season, so there will be a little added pressure to perform. Crew chief Jeremy Bullins will be paired with Keselowski for the second year, and while the first year was a learning year due to a lack of practice and having to get comfortable with each other's styles, this year could see them become a truly formidable combination. Bullins found success with Ryan Blaney, winning three races in four years, but his teaming with Keselowski after a company-wide shakeup proved that Bullins was a championship-caliber crew chief.
The move ended a nine-year run with head wrench Paul Wolfe, who took the helm for teammate Joey Logano in 2020. The swap appeared beneficial for the entire organization, which has come a long way from the days when in-house teams balked at working together. They've embraced teamwork, including satellite organization Wood Brothers Racing, and that's made them a title threat every year, with Keselowski always at the forefront of that conversation.
Team Penske Fords won a total of eight races, and all three made the playoffs along with the Wood Brothers entry. The fact that virtually all of the Ford teams in Cup are running the same engines would seem to spread Roush-Yates resources a little thin, but that hasn't been the case — the power plants have been fast and durable across the board, representing half of the playoff field.
Some sponsorship questions still lingered as 2020 closed. Discount Tire is on board for 15 races, but whether others, including longtime backer Miller Lite, will be on the car is uncertain. Long-term funding could be key to whether Keselowski remains at Penske for 2022 or becomes one of the sport's top free agents.
Keselowski doesn't have an overly aggressive driving style — he generally races others with respect so long as it's reciprocated. Bowling for racecars isn't his style, but neither is rolling over when the finish is on the line. Keselowski's prowess as a driver is centered between his ears. He's smart and forward-thinking, and he is an active participant in strategy during races. He rarely makes major mistakes, and that's key to his consistency — he's going to be in the mix at the end of the day more often than not, and if he's close to the lead, you can bet he's figured out what he needs to do to get it.
What's working against Keselowski is the depth of the field entering this season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him in the title race. But a couple more wins than he's produced in the last five years would go a long way toward making him a favorite.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 8/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of Team Penske)