Brad Keselowski set to make final Cup playoff run with Team Penske

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brad Keselowski will be making his final NASCAR Cup playoff run with Team Penske starting Sunday at Darlington, trying to become a two-time series champion after coming so close a year ago.

Keselowski, the 37-year-old native of Rochester Hills, has enjoyed an outstanding 12-year career with car owner Roger Penske, earning 34 of his 35 Cup wins with the team while handing Penske his first Cup series championship in 2012.

Brad Keselowski waves to fans during driver introductions before the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Keselowski was an underdog in the 16-car, 10-race playoff last year when he finished second to champion Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski actually won a playoff race at Richmond and finished second to Elliott in the playoff finale at Phoenix Raceway … which was also won by Elliott.

“Last year we were so close to winning it, just so frustrating to be that close and not get that second championship, but with time comes a new opportunity,” Keselowski said in a phone interview with The News this week.

“It’s been a heck of a journey (with Team Penske) and I’m super proud of it. Sure it’s a little bittersweet to be on the farewell tour, final laps, but you know I’ve been blessed and I try not to think of it any differently. I just want to do the most I can and really would like to go out on top.”

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Keselowski knows he will be the underdog this time around. He sits 10th on the playoff grid with 2,008 points.

“We’ve been up and down, thought we were really good at the end of the race at Daytona (Saturday) and really good at Loudon, New Hampshire (third-place) about a month ago," Keselowski said. "Everything in between not so much. So there’s certainly room to improve. If you look at the playoff tracks in front of us they are most similar to the rules that we ran at the Loudon race and that kind of tactics so I’m bullish on what we can do.

“The first two rounds are going to be really difficult for us. Assuming we can get through those first two rounds we have a great shot in the third and fourth rounds.”

The Cup playoffs consists of four rounds, three sets of eliminations and one winner-take-all championship race in November at Phoenix.

After the first round — races at Darlington, Richmond and Bristol — the field will shrink from 16 to 12. After Round 2 races at Las Vegas, Talladega and Charlotte Motor Speedway, the field will dwindle from 12 to eight. Following Round 3 events at Texas, Kansas and Martinsville, the field will go from eight to four for the final battle at Phoenix.

“The first two rounds I think the tracks aren’t necessarily our strengths, the 550 (horsepower engine package) tracks,” said Keselowski, whose lone win this season came at Talladega. “Richmond will be a good track for us, but Bristol has not been good for us. Then second round we have Vegas which hasn’t been great to us as of late, used to be since we’ve won three races there, but this year haven’t run good at those tracks. And then Charlotte, and we’ve struggled on the road courses.”

Keselowski feels the Hendrick Motorsports team which consists of Elliott, Kyle Larson, who has won a series-high five races, Alex Bowman (three wins) and William Byron is the team to beat. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. also have shown consistency.

Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney will also be a threat with three wins on the season, including back-to-back victories at Michigan and Daytona to end the regular season.

“The Gibbs cars are super consistent and I think that the Hendrick cars are truly the pace of the field," Keselowski said. "Their only real weakness is their strength on the tracks in the third and fourth rounds, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out."

Keselowski announced he will join Livonia businessman Jack Roush and Roush/Fenway Racing as part owner next season when the new Next Gen car is introduced to the series.

“I’m super excited about it, but I have a big task in front of me right now and I don’t want to put anything in front of that task of trying to win a championship,” Keselowski said.

“We had a great run, Roger and I have. He’s taught me so many things in life, in business, made me a better person and a better racer. I’m proud of that, proud of our relationship and what we’ve done together. That Cup championship was a career high for me.”

david.goricki@detroitnews.com