By Tom Bowles
September 01, 2009

A lot of people will fault Brad Keselowski after signing with Roger Penske Racing for 2010 instead of sticking with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. But there's no question this move was the best he could have made under the circumstances.

Certainly, Penske emerges the big winner in the sweepstakes for NASCAR's hottest free agent. Dodge's top car owner actually wanted Keselowski in the seat of his No. 12 last year, but the driver just wasn't convinced the team had what it took to succeed. Six months later, KurtBusch's all-but-certain Chase bid -- combined with Sam HornishJr.'s steady improvement -- have been enough to change his mind. The disappointing season by David Stremme not withstanding, Penske's three teams have more top 10s already (19) than they had all of last year, with Busch winning Atlanta in March and placing seventh in laps led with 391 through Bristol in August.

That upward trend puts Keselowski in the perfect position of growing with a program that's even better positioned for success in 2010. With Richard Petty Motorsports likely bolting for Toyota, the full resources of Dodge in Cup will be thrown behind the three-car operation that was instrumental in developing the manufacturer's new, more powerful engine. Combine that with funding from multi-million dollar sponsor Verizon behind the scenes (they're banned from advertising on the No. 12 car due to NASCAR's contract with Sprint), and you've got yourself a combination poised to win early and often. Let's not forget, this very same car was sitting in Daytona 500 Victory Lane just 18 months ago with Ryan Newman and has made the Chase as recently as 2005. Just because Stremme has struggled to the tune of no top 10s in 24 starts doesn't mean it can't get back there in a hurry.

So considering the alternative of sticking with Hendrick until a Cup ride opened up, Keselowski chose to strike while the iron was hot ... and who can blame him? After an upset win at Talladega peaked the interest of top car owners, a weak year for free agents overall put him in a top-tier position he may not have been able to achieve in 2010. Yes, Hendrick Motorsports may have pledged they'd put the 25-year-old in a Cup car full-time ... but when? Once considered the replacement for Mark Martin in the No. 5, the veteran's instant success with that program now has most insiders thinking he'll race all the way through 2012, when he turns 53. That's not the ironclad guarantee Keselowski was looking for as he approached the next step in his racing career, and with Penske offering the option of a full-time Nationwide ride, he can still go after the title he covets, the only thing he hasn't achieved in that division to this point.

Back at Bristol, Hendrick made some cryptic comments about no matter how far away Keselowski goes, "he won't lose him forever" despite his decision to go with a different manufacturer. Considering his current driver contracts and NASCAR's four-team limit, that may say more about Jeff Gordon's future than anyone else. With sponsor DuPont up for renewal after 2010, there's rampant speculation the 38-year-old's next year will be his last. Considering the limited options within his own camp (former development driver Landon Cassill doesn't even have a ride), don't be surprised if he makes a beeline for Keselowski in a Gordon retirement scenario.

Whether Keselowski would break contract and accept that offer is anyone's guess. But after a year of watching a Hendrick ride evaporate before his eyes, he certainly wasn't prepared to play the waiting game all over again in 2010. Instead, a top-tier prospect has now aligned itself with one of NASCAR's top-tier teams, and I'd be surprised if plenty of wins and perhaps even a spot in the Chase don't ensue from the partnership in 2010.

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