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Friday 5: Could potential deal send Roush Fenway Racing soaring?

Roush Fenway Racing’s pursuit of Brad Keselowski not only was the best move it could make, but one it had to make.

While Roush Fenway Racing President Steve Newmark declined comment on reports this week that a deal appears in place for Keselowski to join the organization next year as a driver/owner, the signs of something needing to take place were evident.

An organization that once jousted with Hendrick Motorsports to be the sport’s king, Roush Fenway Racing has fallen to mid-tier status in Cup.

This is how good the organization was: A Roush driver either won the championship or finished second in points from 2002-06.

2002 — Mark Martin was series runner-up

2003 — Matt Kenseth won the championship

2004 — Kurt Busch won the championship

2005 — Greg Biffle was series runner-up

2006 — Kenseth was series runner-up

Carl Edwards went on to score runner-up finishes in 2008 and ’11 for Roush Fenway Racing.

Things soon changed for the organization. Kenseth left after the 2012 season for Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards left for JGR after the 2014 season. Biffle was gone after the 2016 season.

Since Edwards’ departure, Roush has won two Cup races and not had a driver finish the season better than 13th in the points (Chris Buescher is 14th in points at the halfway mark of the regular season this year). With Biffle’s departure, the organization downsized to two Cup teams. Roush left the Xfinity Series after the 2018 campaign.

A partnership with Keselowski could reinvent Roush Fenway Racing.

AUTO: OCT 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series - 500

October 25, 2015: Gene Haas (l) and Tony Stewart (r) prior to the 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, AL. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty

Such a situation worked for Haas CNC Racing. Gene Haas’ team had no wins and 14 top-10 finishes from 2002-08. Haas enticed Tony Stewart to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to be an owner and driver for the renamed Stewart-Haas Racing organization. Stewart won four races in his first season at SHR. He won the championship in his third year there.

That doesn’t guarantee the same thing happening for Keselowski at Roush, but the move is worth trying.

It’s not that Keselowski has all the answers. He doesn’t, but he often views things differently than most and such foresight could help push Roush Fenway Racing to greater success.

Shortly after he won the 2012 Cup title, Keselowski gave car owner Roger Penske a list of things the organization could strengthen. Keselowski also was instrumental in bringing Joey Logano to Team Penske after he was let go by Joe Gibbs Racing for Kenseth.

Keselowski also has experience running a team. He owned a Truck Series team that served as a hub for Ford development drivers. Among those who drove for Keselowski were Ryan Blaney, Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Hemric and Austin Cindric. The team shut down after the 2017 season.

In December, Keselowski said of his future: “My days on the car ownership side may not be active, but that doesn’t mean that they’re gone forever and time will tell how they play out.”

NASCAR Cup Series  GEICO 500

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - APRIL 25: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 MoneyLion Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Asked about life beyond driving, he said in the same December media session: “You can only be a race car driver for a finite amount of time. Mark Martin did it better than anyone else or Harry Gant. Those are, most often, the exceptions to the rule. Most race car drivers are really at the end of their career once they hit their 40s or mid-40s. With respect to that, I know there will be a day where I can’t be a race car driver anymore.

“That’s the bittersweet day that is in front of me. When that day comes, I don’t want to just leave the sport behind. I would like to still be able to have a reason to come to the race track other than just to watch. What that will be in the future, I don’t know. … But I do have a love for the sport that has started at an early age that I don’t suspect will end when I’m done driving.”

The timing for a move to Roush Fenway Racing also is right for Keselowski, who is 37 years old. NBC Sports contributor David Smith has noted often on his Motorsports Analytics site that a driver’s peak age is 39. Making such a move still would give Keselowski time to pursue a second title he craves, should he not get it this season.

The timing also is good for such a move with the Next Gen car debuting next season. There will be more spec parts, so team development may not separate organizations as much.

Just as important could be the time for Roush to build over the next few seasons. Both of the sport’s network TV deals end in 2024 and the current charter agreement goes through the 2024 season.

Building over the next three years could prove beneficial with more money likely coming to the sport with the next TV deal — as has been the case with other sports recently. Should changes be made to the charter system, could Roush be in position to benefit?

Adding Keselowski has the potential to help elevate Roush Fenway Racing.

2. On the cusp of a record-breaking win

Alex Bowman’s victory last weekend at Dover moved Hendrick Motorsports within one win of tying Petty Enterprises’ 268 for most in series history.

There’s a good chance Hendrick Motorsports could tie the mark this weekend at Circuit of the Americas (2:30 p.m ET on FS1). Chase Elliott has won four of the last five Cup road course races.

Should it happen, it would blend past and present at a track that could be a part of NASCAR’s future for some time.

“When Petty Enterprises started its dynasty, Sears & Roebuck was a big deal,” Kyle Petty said of his family’s team. “Now, we’re at Amazon.”

Petty/Inman - NASCAR Late 1970s

LEVEL CROSS, NC — Late-1970s: Driver Richard Petty (L) gets his point across to his first cousin and crew chief Dale Inman as they look over a NASCAR Cup car in the Petty Enterprises shop. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

But Petty, an analyst for NBC Sports, sees similarities between Petty Enterprises, which competed from 1949-2008 and Hendrick Motorsports, which made its debut in 1984.

“I think what Rick (Hendrick) has done … is the exact same thing, in a lot of ways, that Petty Enterprises did,” Petty said. “When you go talk to (former Petty Enterprises employee) Steve Hmiel, when you to talk to (former Petty employee) Adam Stevens, when you go talk to (Hall of Fame crew chief) Dale Inman, it was the Petty Enterprise way, it was the Petty way, the family way, and it was Richard Petty’s personality that was imprinted on that team.

“If you talk to Steve Letarte or Jeff Gordon or you could go back and talk to (Geoff) Bodine or Tim Richmond or those guys, if you had the opportunity, it’s the Hendrick Motorsports way, the Hendrick way, his family way … and it’s Rick’s personality and who Rick Hendrick is imprinted in that team.

“In that way, Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports are exactly the same organizations. It’s driven from the top down. The values that those teams have are so similar when you sit down and talk to Rick.”

Hendrick stresses the value of people. The result is that his organization rarely sees key members leave for other teams.

Letarte went from sweeping the floors to being a crew chief before joining NBC Sports. Chad Knaus went from a crew member to seven-time Cup champion crew chief to vice president of competition. Greg Ives went from an engineer for five of Jimmie Johnson’s championships to a crew chief. Alan Gustafson started in the chassis department before working his way to crew chief. Cliff Daniels went from team engineer to crew chief.

That stability has helped Hendrick Motorsports excel, winning 13 Cup titles — all within the last 26 seasons. With Kyle Larson winning at Las Vegas this season, 20 different drivers have contributed to Hendrick’s victory total.

The race is on among the team’s four drivers to give Hendrick the record-breaking win.

“We all know that milestone is out in front of us,” Larson said. “We know that it’s really important to (Hendrick). He mentions it almost every time I feel like I talk to him. I hope we can get there quickly. I hope I’m the driver to do it and break that record whenever we get to it.”

3. Learning the track

Christopher Bell enters this weekend’s race at COTA as the most recent Cup winner on a road course after his Daytona victory in February.

Preparing for Sunday’s race on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile track in Austin, Texas, though, proved challenging.

“For whatever reason, COTA has been by far the hardest road course to learn, turn in and turn out,” Bell said. “Road America is probably the most similar in length that we go to, but COTA just has so many corners. I don’t know if they look similar or what, but I spent a lot of time on iRacing just trying to know what corner comes next. You get a right-hander and then a left-hander. It was substantially harder than every other road course I’ve done of just learning and memorizing the track.

“That’s a huge part of being competitive. I spent a lot of time on iRacing before I went to the Trans-Am test (earlier this year). It was very beneficial. Getting track time, I think, is going to be a really big advantage, and I hope to apply that when we go there and race.”

iRacing and the Trans-Am test were among the tools that helped him get more comfortable with the track, following a similar pattern he used to learn other road courses. Bell estimates he did about 20-30 laps in the Trans-Am car earlier this year.

“It’s just about piecing all the pieces of the puzzle together from starting at iRacing, learning visuals, then picking up my points in the Trans-Am car, and now trying to apply all of that and changing my points but keeping my visual in the Cup car,” he said.

4. LeBron and NASCAR

With the recent news that NBA icon LeBron James joined Fenway Sports Group, which co-owns Roush Fenway Racing, team president Steve Newmark was asked this week about any impact James has had with the team.

“I wouldn’t say there’s been a direct impact on LeBron’s enhanced engagement at Fenway,” Newmark said. “He’s always been part of the Fenway Sports Group, or at least in recent years, and even has been a part owner of Liverpool (in the Premier League) before. He just expanded his presence.

“I think probably the bigger aim behind that transaction, which LeBron was part of, is that the Fenway Sports Group is expanding their sports empire. We’re very fortunate to be a piece of that with the (Boston) Red Sox, with Liverpool and Roush Fenway, and I’m really excited about where the future is going.

“I think Fenway is extremely positive about the direction of this sport. They really see the Next Gen platform as being something that’s gonna be good for both Roush Fenway and the overall sport, so we expect more continued engagement from the Fenway side. As some of you know, the Fenway Sports Management team has got their sales team that works hand-in-hand with our group and they’ve been responsible, quite frankly, for bringing a lot of our partners in, so I can tell you that I hope at some point that we can get LeBron to a race and we’ll see if we can make that come to fruition.”

5. Feeling good until …

While Martin Truex Jr. has won at three of the four playoff tracks run this season with the 750 horsepower package — Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington — points leader Denny Hamlin has been close behind.

Hamlin was second at Richmond, leading 207 of 400 laps. He finished third at Phoenix (33 laps led) and Martinsville (276). Hamlin placed fifth at Darlington. If you want to include Bristol, even though it was on dirt and won’t be that way in the playoffs, Hamlin finished third there.

So with such success, what more is there for the team to do at those style of tracks before the playoffs begin in September?

Crew chief Chris Gabehart says work remains even with all that has been done since last year.

“I think given the way the rules are now, you look at the evolution as more than one year,” he said. “You look at it as two (years). For the majority of what will be two seasons, there has been a rules freeze and that’s not just with the parts and pieces. That’s also with the aero packages.

“I’m very, very happy with the progress that we’ve made with our 750 stuff from last year to this year. Honestly, heading into Dover (a 750 horsepower package track), felt really good about it.

“Then the way this sport does so well, it humbles you very quickly, and Hendrick Motorsports reminds you that you’re not where you want to be yet. We’re going to keep working at it. I feel very good about our development path and the things we’re working on. One thing for sure is if you get to the playoffs and … you have not made strides from here, you will not be good enough. You have to keep working on it for sure.”

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