CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The long breakup between Roger Penske and Brad Keselowski was finalized Thursday when Austin Cindric was named driver of the flagship No. 2, replacing the driver who won Team Penske its first Cup championship.
Keselowski had a prolonged contract negotiation a year ago that netted him only a one-year extension and salary cut, and Team Penske said around the same time it would move Cindric up to the Cup Series to drive for partner Wood Brothers Racing.
Keselowski has since tested the market and told Penske he was looking for an ownership stake in a Cup team.
“The way we’re structured, that just wasn’t available,” Penske said. “We’re sorry to see him go. This was not a disagreement or anything else. This was a business decision that was made on both sides fairly and squarely.”
If ownership was not so important to Keselowski, Penske said he would have extended his contract for two to three years. Instead, Keselowski will leave after 12 seasons — drivers don't usually part ways with Roger Penske voluntarily — and the plans for Cindric were upended.
The No. 2 Ford was open and Cindric, the 22-year-old son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, could stay within the organization. Penske stressed that his new Cup driver has proven he deserved the iconic seat.
“You know, you come in as the son of the guy who is president of Team Penske, you probably come in with a little weight on your shoulders," Penske said. “But he's proven to be the driver he is, the individual he is and this is a big step for him.”
Keselowski has not announced officially what he's doing next year, but it's been openly discussed that he'll move to Roush Fenway Racing with a piece of ownership — a move seemingly confirmed by Penske.
“Brad's done a hell of a job for us and he'll bring a lot of value to Roush," Penske said.
Keselowski said on social media that he was making the move to “embrace a new opportunity and challenge” and called it a decision he did not take lightly.
Keselowski noted that when he arrived at Penske in 2010, the organization had 65 Cup Series wins and was still seeking its first Cup title. He gave Roger Penske the championship in his third season, won 34 of his 35 career Cup wins with the team and is a perennial title contender.
He heads to Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the defending race winner, and he currently is ranked 10th in the standings with a playoff-qualifying victory.
“Over our years together we developed into a formidable force,” Keselowski said. “Today the team has more than 130 Cup Series wins, two Xfinity Championships and two Cup Series Championships. I am so proud to have played a role in these wins and milestones.”
Cindric, meanwhile, was to replace Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers. That seat will now go to Xfinity Series driver Harrison Burton.
Cindric has 12 career Xfinity victories and is leading the championship standings. He already has made six Cup starts this year in preparation for next season but never expected to land the No. 2.
He said he still has a photo of Keselowski doing a victory burnout at Bristol autographed by Keselowski in the bedroom at his parents' house.
“Driving the two car for Team Penske certainly comes with a great responsibility and obviously great heritage,” Cindric said. “I’m excited to tackle it head-on.”
Burton is the 20-year-old son of retired racer and NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton. He won four races last season and currently is fifth in the Xfinity Series standings.
All the shuffling put DiBenedetto out of a ride, again. He made the playoffs last season knowing Cindric was taking his seat, but he had hoped plans would change with Keselowski's impending departure.
The journeyman driver posted a nine-minute video venting his frustration at losing yet another ride. DiBenedetto said the No. 21 team had been “broken” for some time, but he'd hoped a recent crew chief change would improve performance and help him keep his job.
“It’s OK to have human emotion," DiBenedetto said in his video. "It doesn’t make it not suck.”
Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood said the decision to go with Burton paired him with Cindric as two young Cup rookies at the same time NASCAR rolls out a new car.
“The Next Gen car is coming and that’s a white sheet of paper, drivers in particular,” Wood said. “We felt that was a good time to bring in a young rookie. Being rookies, they’re both on the same level and this new car is such a white sheet of paper that even if you’re a veteran, if you’re a 20-year veteran, you’re really not going to have a lot on a rookie.”
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