The Racing Capital
of the World
November 19, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
When NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship” began Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway, there were many “Brickyard Legends” who had a chance to win the 2012 Sprint Cup title. But in the end, the man who is celebrating is the greatest “Brickyard Legend” of them all.
Roger Penske, the man whose cars and drivers have won a record 15 Indianapolis 500s and 12 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, missing jewel needed 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, Penske, 76, can 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. But it took a brash, young kid from Rochester Hills, Mich., to give Penske the title when Brad Keselowski clinched the championship with a 15th-place finish in the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Feb. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
No man understands the stature of the Indianapolis 500 better than Penske. But considering the time and effort it took to finally claim NASCAR’s biggest prize, he places the Sprint Cup title above all of his other accomplishments.
“It's at the top of the mark now,” Penske said before going on 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 (Jimmie) 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 in 1973 at Riverside, Calif., with 1972 Indianapolis 500 winner Mark Donohue behind the wheel. It was the first of 76 wins in the Cup series. But while Penske won races at NASCAR’s highest level, he couldn’t win a championship.
In order for Keselowski to be the best, he had 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 Keselowski only needed to finish 15th or better to clinch the title.
Johnson wasn’t going down without a fight. He forced the issue while leading late in the race.
And that’s 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 wheel 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 if we could have not had the mistake on pit road and then the gear failure at the end. 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.
“I would have hated to come out here and do the trash-talking I did to start the week and run 25th all night long. You know, I'm proud of the fact that we went out there and backed up what we said we could do, and we put the pressure on. It doesn't take the sting away from losing the championship. It helps in some ways and stings in others, so it balances out, I guess.”
“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 2006-10, 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.
“He's the best,” Keselowski said of Johnson. “He proved here today he was going to win this damn race, and I know that. We were not as we wanted to be, I'll be the first to admit that, but my guys never gave up, we kept working and at the end we were capable of getting back up enough to where it wouldn't have mattered if he had won, which made me feel a lot better. But my guys did a great job all year long, and I'm lucky to have them.”
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 said. “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.
“When I can be part of that group and then say we're at the top of the sport in 2012, it's a goal I'm sure everybody wants where they want to be.”
And Penske finally made it after 40 years of trying this unique form of racing known as NASCAR. During his career as an IndyCar owner, Penske has made success look easy at times. But in NASCAR, he will be the first to admit reaching the top has been 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.”