In episode of the syndicated show “In Depth with Graham Bensinger” that re-aired last week, Keselowski spoke candidly about team-owner Rick Hendrick’s decision to keep veteran Mark Martin in his No. 5 Sprint Cup Series Chevrolet for 2010, despite previously promising the ride to Keselowski.
Keselowski spoke about a meeting with rival team owner Roger Penske two years earlier, intended to gauge his interest in joining Penske Racing.
“He wanted to know what my situation was,” recalled Keselowski. “I knew I wanted to do the Hendrick (deal) and go for that. But this is Roger Penske! How can I say `no’ to a chance to meet him? So I met him in a Conference Room in 2008. I sat in that office and he talked to me. I just wanted to hear him talk. I didn’t know what he (would have) to say.
“At the end, he asked me a very simple question. ‘Are you interested?’ I told him I’m a loyal guy (and) I’ve already made another commitment (to Hendrick).
“I had agreed to race for Rick Hendrick,” said Keselowski. “He had just signed Mark Martin, and I was ready in the wings, so to speak. I wasn’t just ready (in terms of) the sport, I was ready mentally. But obviously, it didn’t play out.”
|Keselowski and Hendrick in happier times|
Hendrick spoke openly at the time of keeping Keselowski close at hand, saying, “We're looking at different options… external situations with other teams” like Stewart Haas Racing and Phoenix Racing, in addition to a full-time return to the JR Motorsports Nationwide operation. “He wants to do something associated with our company and we're working on it,” said Hendrick. “He'll be running Cup (in 2009). Whether he'll be running them all or 75 percent of them or what, I don't know."
Keselowski chose to remain with JR Motorsports in 2009, believing he would replace struggling Casey Mears at the wheel of Hendrick’s No. 5 Sprint Cup Series Chevrolet the following season. He made 12 Sprint Cup starts with HMS and Phoenix Racing that season, but realized early in the season that his promised ride might not be his, after all.
“As soon as Mark Martin won (at Phoenix in April of 2009), I knew what it meant,” he recalled. “As soon as he won that race, I knew I wasn’t going to get the ride at Hendrick Motorsports in 2010: the one essentially we’d talked about and I’d been promised.”
One week later, Keselowski took car-owner James Finch to Victory Lane at Talladega Superspeedway. “I was driving with a chip on my shoulder, trying to put (the rejection) in the background,” he said. And while he initially hoped the victory would be enough to retain his promised spot in the Hendrick stable, Keselowski soon received a telephone call from the HMS owner.
“I know what (the call) was, but I didn’t want to believe it,” he recalled. “As soon as he won Phoenix, (Martin) walked up to Mr. Hendrick and said he wanted to drive the car for the next year or two. Which essentially (meant) there was no spot for me.”
Martin proved difficult to ignore, teaming with crew chief Alan Gustafson to win five times during that decisive 2009 season. It was a fairytale matchup, and given the choice between an established veteran and a largely unproven rookie, Hendrick elected to retain the hot hand.
Asked if he felt betrayed by the decision, Keselowski said, “I never really thought of it as betrayal. (Or) maybe I did, I don’t know.
“I was more heartbroken… chippy. Maybe that’s something that comes from a sense of betrayal, but that’s a strong word. I would say it definitely added fuel to the fire of who I am and my desire to be the best.”