Brad Keselowski‘s foray into NASCAR Cup Series ownership seems to be a done deal, depending on who you ask.
And aside from the question of where Keselowski would fit in at Roush Fenway Racing — new car? Replacing an existing driver? — there’s also the case of his current ride, Team Penske’s No. 2.
Which is a car that’s going to exist next year, make no mistake there. When a driver’s subtracted from the fold at a team, there’s always the possibility of equivalent transfer in the age of charters, with the addition of a car somewhere meaning the removal of one elsewhere as charters change hands. And even if Keselowski’s potential departure means less charters in the Penske stable (this is not exactly something most folks are expecting, to be clear), the No. 2 would still exist. It’d just have to. As long as Penske continues fielding Cup cars, a Penske No. 2 carries far more tradition than the team’s Nos. 12 or 22.
The driver of the No. 2? That’s a different story entirely.
Generally there are three agreed-upon scenarios that seem the most likely, though. One’s an existing Penske driver sliding into the No. 2 — think Alex Bowman replacing Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 at Hendrick Motorsports. Joey Logano‘s got quite the history in the No. 22 now, so it’s difficult to imagine him shifting to another car number. Ryan Blaney, on the other hand? His No. 12 tenure is far less substantial; moving from the tertiary car to a flagship could be in the cards.
But it’s thought to be more likely that the seat will come down to one of the two other competitors in the Penske or Penske-adjacent NASCAR world: Matt DiBenedetto or Austin Cindric.
DiBenedetto would be a clean shift. His two-season stint at Penske satellite Wood Brothers Racing is supposed to be over this year, and with a room opening up at the inn, he’d be an simple replacement for Keselowski, even if he lacks the star power of his predecessor in this scenario.
Then there’s Cindric. He’s the driver announced to replace DiBenedetto at WBR for his rookie Cup season in 2022, snagging a call-up from Penske’s Xfinity Series ranks. But unlike DiBenedetto, Cindric’s got the more explicit Penske connection; aside from the Xfinity role, he’s run a limited schedule for the team in Cup this year in its No. 33, and his dad’s the team president. It’s not terribly common, but it’s also not unheard of for previously announced plans to change by the time teams show up for the Daytona 500; would Cindric make more sense in the No. 2, while DiBenedetto stays put in the Woods’ No. 21?
The answer is yes, by the way. Cindric should get the No. 2.
Let’s address the nepotistic elephant in the room first: yeah, Cindric’d be getting the ride in part because Tim Cindric runs the show at Penske. But is that really all that bad a thing here? Not to say all offspring of team owners, presidents or even past NASCAR superstars should always get the look over someone who’s not — they shouldn’t. And if you’d posed the possibility of this eventually happening in 2015, when Cindric was first getting his feet wet in the Camping World Truck Series, I for one would’ve said hey, no, give it to DiBenedetto, Cindric’s just the president’s son.
Despite a Truck career that produced a win but never quite set the racing world on far, though, Cindric’s actually become a force to be reckoned with in stock cars. Shoot, he won the 2020 Xfinity championship and he’s currently leading the 2021 standings. He boasts 11 wins entering Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, where he’s a favorite for the victory. He’s gone from respectable at ovals and dynamite on road courses to a contender practically everywhere.
And yeah, he’s racing a Penske car, so he should most certainly be competing for wins. But Cindric’s championship, six-win 2020 and strong start to 2021 suggests he’s got more upside than your usual prospect with connections to the top brass — like, for instance, Austin Dillon, who won the 2013 Xfinity title with a no-win season and had just two series victories before being moved up to Cup. Dillon’s never exactly blown folks away at the sport’s top level, but he’s won some of the series’ biggest races and is at the very least generally considered worthy of a seat in Cup. If Cindric’s well ahead of those metrics already, it stands to reason that his success will carry over in some capacity to Cup, too.
To that end, why put him in a Wood Brothers car, then? Would that not just delay the inevitable? We’re not talking a guy who seems too concerned about making his own way; he drives for Penske now, so one can’t imagine him getting to Cup and deciding he’d rather forge his own path with another organization. Getting him in the No. 21 made sense when Penske didn’t necessarily have the space for him but didn’t want him just beating up on Xfinity regulars when he was clearly ready for the big time. But with the No. 2 potentially open, and Cindric’s future probably including a Penske Cup car at some point anyway, would it be better to put in someone who’ll, yes, be a rookie, but comes with a formidable-enough pedigree that he might challenge for a win here and there in said rookie season if he’s in equipment like Penske’s?
At 22, Cindric fits the bill as the young talent around which a team can build a dynasty. Can we say the same about DiBenedetto?
Full disclosure, DiBenedetto’s a great driver, and his story the past few years has been one of the more inspiring on the NASCAR national series level. He went from highly touted Joe Gibbs Racing prospect to start-and-parker for anyone who’d hire him to someone who’d regularly punch above his weight in underfunded Cup equipment, which landed him his WBR ride to begin with. And despite a fairly miserable start to the 2021 season, he’s started to get more into that 2019-2020 form that made him one of the sport’s beloved underdogs.
And hey, maybe there’s a chance DiBenedetto could be the next Bowman, a driver who did eventually get the shot with one of the elites and showed that his success elsewhere was no fluke. Who five years ago expected Bowman to be a four-time Cup winner and someone who can actually hold his own performance-wise at Hendrick, the series’ gold-standard team? Moving DiBenedetto to the No. 2 could very well be a similar move.
If Cindric was a year or two away from being Cup ready, then sure, give DiBenedetto the nod. The problem is he’s ready as is, and there’s also no guarantee DiBenedetto would be leaps and bounds better than Cindric in the same equipment.
Shoot, look at their 2021s. DiBenedetto’s got a 17.7 average finish in his 15 Cup starts this season. Cindric, in his five Cup races — and in his first experience with a Cup car in a race setting ever, mind you? A 22.4, which isn’t splashy but also isn’t too far off DiBenedetto’s average. Bear in mind, too, that their average finish would be almost identical had Cindric ended up in the top five two weekends ago at Circuit of the Americas, something that for a while seemed fairly possible after he started third and led the first four laps of the race. His eventual 25th-place finish was not indicative of his speed for much of the race.
Cindric may very well be the better driver, even if DiBenedetto’s got the experience. It seems like the better move to instead keep the latter in the No. 21, still part of the Penske family but not in a ride he might not have come 2023 or beyond anyway. Because, OK, let’s say Penske decides to go with DiBenedetto for next year. Does Cindric seem like the long-term answer for the No. 21? Not exactly. Maybe there’s a scenario where both of them end up at Penske thanks to a departing Blaney and/or Logano, but there are not yet whispers of such a transaction, so it’s difficult to even consider it just yet.
Penske and the Woods may decide to keep the status quo after Keselowski’s departure, going full steam ahead with the previous announcement that Cindric will run for rookie of the year in the No. 21 in 2022. Hell, the rumors of Keselowski’s move to Roush could even be greatly exaggerated.
But if Keselowski’s gone and Cindric and DiBenedetto are the two options to replace him, Cindric’s the right option, even if DiBenedetto might be the more popular decision. For Penske’s future, it just seems to make the most sense.