COMMENTARY | What Penske Racing accomplished last year, in retrospect, was pretty amazing. They were the only Dodge team, and somehow despite this the team saw Brad Keselowski surpass all of his competitors in Chevys, Fords and Toyotas and take the Sprint Cup championship - despite the fact that their pools of data to share and improve their cars was much, much larger.
Heading into 2013, a big change was coming at Penske Racing, and that was a switch to Ford from Dodge - signaling Dodge's exit from the sport and a new challenge for the Penske team: Competing at a championship level in new equipment and avoiding that dreaded learning curve when a switch like this is made.
Heading into this season, I fully recognized Brad Keselowski's ability to compete for another title, but I also felt the manufacturer switch would make it much less likely to happen.
Turns out, just a month into the season, that I and all the other doubters were proven wrong right off the bat. Keselowski rattled off a string of top-5 finishes to take the points lead after the first four races of the year, and was running near the front late at California before falling back for his first non top-5 run of the year. He's no longer the points leader, but it's pretty clear from the way he's running so far in 2013 that Brad will win races this year and be a legitimate threat to repeat as champion.
Even his new Penske teammate, Joey Logano, seems to be taking well to his new Ford ride, nearly earning the victory last week before that highly controversial finish that ended with an on-track skirmish with Denny Hamlin and an off-track skirmish with Tony Stewart.
Getting back to Keselowski, though, one thing is clear from the way the year has started: Keselowski is the new leader of the pack for Ford's racing brigade in the Cup series, which is a pretty big change and a throwback to the days when Rusty Wallace was driving the No. 2 Ford Thunderbird for Penske.
For the past decade or so, Roush Racing was the first name that came to mind when you said the words "Ford" and "Cup" in the same sentence. It probably still is, with talented vets like Carl Edwards (who is doing better this year) and Greg Biffle in the stable at Roush, plus young upstart Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
But even if Roush is still the first Ford team people think of, that doesn't mean it has the best Ford driver. To be fair, all three Roush Fenway cars would be in the Chase if it started today, but think about this year and who has been up front on a weekly basis. That to me defines the top driver for a particular car make.
Jimmie Johnson is the obvious choice for top Chevy driver. He does well wherever he races, to the point where millions of fans hate him for it. The guy is flat-out good and often makes the race boring by dominating so much.
On the Toyota end, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin tend to lead the pack, but with Denny hurt it is Kyle leading the way for them from this point on. He's definitely a legitimate title shot if JGR can keep good cars and engines under him.
And when you think of Fords on the track this year, with no disrespect to the Roush team, none of its drivers have the first car that comes to mind this season. That would be the blue deuce of Brad Keselowski, defending champion and the guy who almost always seems to figure out a way to finish well even if he doesn't qualify well or race up front early. This is a skill that will win you championships - getting a 5th when you should have been 10th; or getting 3rd when you should have been 8th. That's how Brad became the champ last year.
And it's what makes it somewhat un-surprising to me that he has so quickly proven us naysayers wrong and shown everyone how, whatever car make he is driving, he will contend ever week and be a title threat once again.
Brad continues to prove on a weekly basis that any concerns about the move to Ford by Penske were completely unwarranted, and with all due respect to Carl Edwards and company in the Ford camp, if they want to contend seriously for the Cup this fall, they're going to have to make It past their new Blue Oval brother Brad Keselowski, who has vaulted to the top of the Ford leadership ladder in terms of on-track performance.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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