Multiple published reports this week say that David Stemme will be out of the Penske Racing #12 Dodge next season, replaced by Brad Keselowski.
While none of the involved parties are commenting at present, sources close to the situation say that intense negotiations late last week finalized a deal to bring Keselowski to the Penske camp with a multi-year contract.
Keselowski was on the Sprint Cup radar long before an upset victory in James Finch’s Phoenix Racing machine at Talladega earlier this season. In fact, he declined an identical offer from Penske a year ago, holding out for a spot in the potent Hendrick Motorsports stable.
Less than a year ago, team owner Rick Hendrick called the Michigan native “the future of Hendrick Motorsports,” but unfortunately, the future was all he could offer. All four HMS Chevrolets are presently filled with top-notch talent, and until Mark Martin finally calls it a career (or Jeff Gordon’s ailing spine forces him into retirement), there is simply no room at the inn.
And so, the driver who once seemed destined to steer a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet finds himself just weeks away from a Penske Racing Dodge.
What a strange, strange world.
It’s been a long and surprisingly difficult trek for Keselowski. At different points in the process, he has been linked with Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, a proposed JR Motorsports Sprint Cup team, Penske Racing, Phoenix Racing and others. In the end, however, every option but one came up empty.
Hendrick ran out of room when Mark Martin said he’d like to run another season. Or two.
Tony Stewart said Stewart-Haas was not yet ready to add a third car.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., declined to take his team to the Cup series, citing sponsorship concerns.
And Finch – even with promised technical support from Hendrick – has never ranked among the circuit’s elite teams. Eventually, it became clear that Keselowski’s only real option for 2010 was Penske Racing, which rewarded Stremme for yeoman work as a test driver a year ago, only to watch the Indiana native struggle in his first season in NASCAR’s new racers.
Penske Vice President of Marketing Jonathan Gibson confirmed recently that the team has negotiated with Keselowski, saying, "It's no secret we've been talking with Brad. Roger Penske has a history of having great drivers (and) Brad Keselowski is a great driver.”
Even Hendrick sounded resigned to the deal this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, saying, "I won't lose him forever.
"I've said all along I want (Brad) to have the best opportunity,” said Hendrick. “The one thing I told him is, 'Look, if you decide to do something different, I want you to have the best opportunity. Whoever you go to drive for, just tell them don't get pissed off when I come after you.’”
Hendrick has good reason to be graceful. As the unquestioned lead dog among NASCAR Sprint Cup team owners, he understands that he can ultimately have any driver he covets. Everyone’s contract expires eventually, and nobody says “no” to a job offer from Mister H. He’ll get another shot at Keselowski one day, and he knows it.
Hendrick even left the door open for Keselowski to continue driving the JR Motorsports Nationwide Series Chevrolet next season, though the chances of that happening are miniscule. Kelley Earnhardt Elledge told ESPN's Marty Smith recently that there is no way Keselowski could continue with JR Motorsports after signing a Cup deal with a rival manufacturer. In fact, sources tell Sirius Speedway today that Kelly Bires is at the top of Earnhardt Elledge’s list of drivers to replace Keselowski when the Penske deal is announced.
Once, a Hendrick-Keselowski partnership seemed to be written in the stars. But in the end, the deal fell victim to a simple case of bad timing. Too many drivers, not enough rides.
Roger Penske has snapped up one of the most talented newcomers in recent memory, and if all goes well, the deal may go down as the biggest swipe-job since Hendrick himself lured Kyle Busch away from Roush Racing. And if not, Mister H will be waiting.
After all, good things come to those who wait.
Patrick To Stay In IndyCar: OK, we can all stop talking about Danica Patrick now.
Patrick finally admitted Saturday that she and “her brand” will remain in the Indy Racing League, with Andretti Green Racing.
"Every team has its pitfalls and people who are difficult, but I like some of the changes being made for this team (that are) good for me," said Patrick. “This is a great team. It's won a lot of races and there's no reason to think we can't do it again. My deal isn't finalized, but things are going well and clearly moving forward and that's good."
Questioned on her on-again, off-again flirtation with NASCAR, Patrick said, "I think at the end of the day, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know."
Ambrose's Deal Nothing To Sneeze At: JTG Daugherty Racing has announced that Kimberly-Clark’s Kleenex brand will serve as a sponsor on Marcos Ambrose’s #47 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota in 2010, beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.
Kleenex will serve as primary sponsor in five races (including Daytona) and as an associate backer in the other 31 events. They have been a major sponsor in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for the past 15 years, most recently with Baker-Curb Racing and driver Jason Keller. Ambrose is currently 17th in Sprint Cup points in his first full season of competition, finishing third behind winner Kyle Busch and runnerup Mark Martin at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night.