Penske Revels In First Sprint Cup Crown
by Bruce Martin
Roger Penske poses with Brad Keselowski after securing the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (NASCAR Photo)
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship began at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 16 there were many “Brickyard Legends” that had an opportunity to win the 2012 Sprint Cup title.
Roger Penske, the man whose cars and drivers have won a record 15 Indianapolis 500s, 12 IndyCar championships in USAC, CART and the IZOD IndyCar Series, was finally able to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title for the first time in his over 40 years as a team owner.
Penske has achieved the greatest accomplishments in racing including a record that may never be matched or even surpassed at the “World’s Greatest Race” – the Indianapolis 500. But when it came to NASCAR, the Sprint Cup title remained the elusive jewel that was missing to complete his historic collection.
For the man whose teams dominated Trans-Am, achieved historic success in IndyCar and is the last American team owner to field his own car in Formula One, the 76-year-old Penske can now celebrate the one championship that eluded him for so long. He came close to winning the Cup in 1993 and 1994 with Rusty Wallace as the driver of the No. 2 “Blue Deuce.” But it took a brash young kid from Rochester Hills, Michigan to give Penske the title when Brad Keselowski clinched the championship with a 15th-place finish in the Ford Eco Boost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“It’s at the top of the mark now,” Penske said before going onto the Sprint Cup Championship Stage. “As I told you when Brad and I got together three years ago and we talked about a plan, we executed, but I want to thank all the people in our company, all our 40,000 employees that have helped us. This race shop team is outstanding, with just the reliability of that car and engine and Dodge, I want to thank Dodge for what they’ve done and certainly Miller Lite and Shell Pennzoil.
“I think the competition is just so super and you think about the people that have won this series over the years, you know, Rick Hendrick is a great friend of mine. You could see Johnson and those guys were right there right down to the last few laps and it’s just something that you have to work on and these guys are the best.
“But this guy Keselowski is something special, and for me it’s a lifelong goal when you think about Hendrick, you think about Earnhardt and Childress and Gibbs and just to mention all the guys that have been up there, and we’ve been close but we’ve never delivered. But this guy here delivered it for us. Every week all through the year, gave us this championship. Boy, I’ll tell you, man, I love you.”
Penske won a NASCAR Cup race at Riverside, California with 1972 Indianapolis 500 winner Mark Donohue in 1973. It was the first of 76 wins in the Cup Series. But while Penske was able to successfully win races at NASCAR’s highest level he couldn’t win a championship.
In order for Keselowski to be the best he was going to have to beat the best in another “Brickyard Legend” – four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski had a 20-point lead over Johnson entering the final race of the season which meant for the most part Johnson was going to have to finish 20 positions higher than Keselowski if he didn’t win the race. If Johnson was able to drive the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to victory as well as score the bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps then Keselowski would have to finish 15th.
Johnson wasn’t going down without a fight and forced the issue when he was leading the race before he had to make what appeared to be his final pit stop.
And that is when it all began to go so wrong for Johnson.
With 54 laps to go Johnson made what appeared to be his final pit stop. But one of the lug nuts on his tires was missing and he was nailed for a penalty, having to pit on the next lap. He was leading the race before that stop.
It would only get worse when his rear-end differential failed, sending the No. 48 Chevrolet into the garage area and officially ending his “Chase for the Championship.”
“We were in position and putting the pressure on the 2 car like we needed to,” Johnson said of Keselowski. “I said at the beginning of the week, 15th isn’t a lay up, and I certainly had him in position. He made it really interesting here at the end of this thing. It we could have not had the mistake on pitted road and then the gear failure at the end. Didn’t really catch exactly what happened but I know there was oil under the back of the car. So there was oil under the back of the car. I’m not sure if a fitting busted or was hit by debris or line but something back there allowed the car to puke out gear oil. So as I was saying, there was oil all over under the back of the car, so something happened from either a line failure or a fitting was hit by debris or something and it puked all the gear oil out and burned up the gear. So again, disappointing, and we were right there in position and putting pressure on like we needed to.
But I have a lot to be proud of this year and so does this race team, and I can’t thank everybody I need to thank everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Every man and woman there put in countless hours giving me great equipment, the support from Lowe’s, my fan base, Chevrolet and my family. We did all we could and came up a little short.
Brad Keselowski answers a question during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour as team owner Roger Penske looks on. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)
“Yes, it all unraveled pretty quickly. You know, the pit road thing, I was just kind of dealing with it, the first two or three laps I got on the track and trying to think through what was going on. Chad had some optimism left in his voice. I wasn’t sure why or what. Maybe he was just doing a good job of being a cheerleader.
“But I ran a handful of laps and then I could smell some oil. And when the gear failed, I mean, there was a lot of shaking in the car. I knew it was big and going to be fatal.”
After racking up a record five-straight Cup titles from 2006-2010 Johnson has fallen short the past two years. It’s an unusual feeling for the driver who made it look so easy for so long during his championship run.
“It sucks to be close and not get it,” said this year’s winner of the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard. “That’s just the way it is. The statement I made about the eight championships is on that big wish list that we all have a wish list. The reality of that isn’t something that motivates me, and I’m not focused on it or think about that number. It was really to give everybody an answer because everybody would ask me, What next?
“So I thought it would bide me some time to have to come up with some type of answer.
“But I’m just disappointed that we came so close. We had 80 percent of the Chase that we wanted to have, a ton of momentum late in the season, and then those final two races bit us.”
Just a few moments after clinching the championship Keselowski was able to frame his feelings as it compared to the driver he beat.
And by doing that Keselowski helped his “Brickyard Legend” team owner achieve something he had sought for so long.
“It’s a goal that I had,” Penske said. “You could see that it wasn’t easy. It just didn’t line up and go today because Chad Knaus and as I said, the elite group, Hendrick’s boys and Jimmie Johnson were very strong today and they were throwing everything they could at us. It’s something I can’t hardly believe right now. I played this race in my mind over the weekend so many times what could happen yes or no.
“But I guess when Jimmie lost that lug nut, I said someone gave us four aces right there in our hand, so what we need to do is be sure we didn’t drop them. But I just want to thank Paul Wolfe (crew chief) for the great job he’s done in building this team.”
Penske has been a master at building successful businesses and race teams by what he calls the “human capital.”
“It’s not how much money you put into your race team, it’s all about the people and the human capital, and I guess Brad is right at the top,” Penske said. “When he came in and said, look, I want to help you build a championship team, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand, and that’s how we started, and there’s no question that he’s delivered way above what both of us probably thought was possible when you look at the competition and what we have to deal with.
“But he’s a great leader on our team. Obviously I remember I said, I think, earlier that he said, I’m not helping Kurt Busch enough, meaning he wasn’t good enough at that point. But when he took over the leadership of the team, I said to him, you’re going to be the leader of this team, and I think that you’ve seen what’s happened. He hasn’t missed a step. He’s galvanized the team from the standpoint of leadership with Paul and the whole team, and I think never does he miss a day coming in the shop, putting his arm around the guys, and that makes a big difference. You can be a big shot, but you’ve got to get down on the ground and work with the guys that are doing all this work day in and day out.
“For me this is what I love, taking people within at organization and seeing them flourish, and he certainly has today.”
Some have even drawn comparisons between Penske’s latest racing star with the very first star that drove his cars to victory – Donohue.
“When I compare the two, these are guys that would work in the shop,” Penske said. “I remember many nights Mark Donohue would work all night in the shop and get in the truck and tow the car to the races, and that’s the kind of background that Brad had with his dad and his brother and uncle and what have you, and I think that Brad has become a technician. I mean, he’s smart, he’s engineering savvy. Obviously Mark went to Brown. Brad didn’t have that opportunity.
“But I see them as pure team players, and I think that’s the great teams, you look at Jimmie, you look at Jeff, you look at Earnhardt, all these guys, what they built, the camaraderie, think about Earnhardt Sr. and Childress, these things grow together, and I think what’s what we did with Mark and obviously that’s what Brad has been able to do for our team. So I see them a lot like that; they’re the glue, they’re the builders.”
On Friday, Penske compared Keselowski to four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears and three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves as well as Donohue.
“I think I’ve got a long ways to go to keep up with those guys, and there’s a lot of work to be done,” Keselowski said of the impressive comparisons. “I feel like we’re still at the beginning. I don’t feel like you can’t judge something off the beginning. You know, if you were building a house and you just looked at the foundation, it doesn’t look like much of anything. I feel like we’re very early. We’ve got the cement poured, and I want to keep building.”
Because of his tremendous accomplishments in the Indianapolis 500 Penske’s license plate on his personal vehicle is “INDY 1.” He is considering ordering another plate for another one of his cars.
“I guess I put NASCAR 1 on it right now,” Penske quipped. “I guess that might be right.
“It’s a special position to be in as an owner. Obviously, as I’ve said before, it’s a goal that I wanted to achieve, and I tried hard. We were close in 1993 with Rusty finishing second and then third in ’94. That’s a long time ago. The competition has gotten tougher, and I think that any one weekend there’s 10 or 15 cars that can win, and I think for us to be able to have the continuity, and it’s a team, we’ve built a special team here, and I’m proud to be the leader, but on the other hand we delegate down to people like Mike Nelson and Travis and obviously Paul and Tim Cindric gets a lot of credit for kind of putting this whole thing together.
And finally, after 40 years of trying this unique form of racing known as NASCAR. During his career as an IndyCar owner he has made success look easy at times but in NASCAR he will be the first to admit that is oh so hard.
That is why Penske feels such a deep sense of satisfaction in his latest accomplishment.
“Well, personally I feel amazing that I’ve been able to achieve this in racing,” Penske said. “I’ve lauded the people that have been on that stage for so many years in Las Vegas and New York, and to be able to join this elite group and say that I’m a champion in NASCAR means a lot, and certainly as I said earlier it takes a lot of people, but I think it took the guts for me to stay in the sport. We could have thought, well, we won the Indy 500 15 times and we’re a big deal, but I’ll tell you one thing: Until you get here and you compete at the top and win it, you really know what’s happened, and I think I just woke up here tonight, and it’s a big thrill.”