HOMESTEAD, Fla. - It had been a humbling 24 hours of championship racing for Roger Penske when he settled in for the plane ride back to Detroit.
His heart had been broken in California, where Will Power coughed away the IndyCar title by crashing out of the season finale. The disappointed team owner then made his way to Chicago for the opening race of NASCAR's 10-race championship series, where Penske driver Brad Keselowski stole a surprise win over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
It was a tremendous emotional swing for Penske, who said to no one in particular on that flight home, "Well, we raced with the big boys today. And we won."
"That really struck me when he said that, because Fontana was the lowest of the lows, a tough night," said Walt Czarnecki, a Penske executive for more than 40 years. "To come back the next day and win Chicago with Brad, it was such a turning point for Roger. He was energized to race with the big boys, and to beat them. And to do it after losing Fontana with Will. It helped."
Penske, the most successful team owner in open-wheel history, has little to show for 40 years of NASCAR. Keselowski, the 28-year-old blue collar antiestablishment Michigan native, could change that for "The Captain" - just as he promised in a passionate speech to Penske four years ago.
Keselowski takes a 20-point lead over Johnson into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where a finish of 15th or better will give Penske his first Sprint Cup title. It would have been his first ever NASCAR championship if Keselowski hadn't won him a second-tier Nationwide title in 2010 - his first season with Penske Racing.
These are the trophies Keselowski vowed to deliver when he reached out to Penske in 2008.
He was driving for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and locked into a developmental deal with Hendrick Motorsports, but didn't see a Cup ride opening anytime soon. So he asked Penske what he had available, even though Penske wasn't exactly the dream destination for NASCAR talent.
Penske has won 23 national championships in open wheel racing and 15 Indianapolis 500s, and his passion and his focus are usually on directed on that part of the motorsports program. Although his NASCAR organization had 61 wins before Keselowski arrived, it only contended for a championship once - in 1993 when Rusty Wallace won 10 races and still finished second to Dale Earnhardt.
It's a baffling hole in the resume of one of the most successful businessmen in America.
"Roger Penske is an unbelievable owner and person, and what's surprising is he hasn't won more championships, multiple championships," NASCAR chairman Brian France said Saturday.
In fairness, Penske was out of NASCAR from 1981 until 1991, and Czarnecki said they discovered "the sport had clearly changed" upon their return. And Penske himself has admitted that NASCAR wasn't always a priority to him.
It can be traced to Keselowski, who demands more of Penske's time and energy simply by being himself. Those who have been with Penske from the beginning see similarities in the relationship between owner and driver to the one Penske had with Rick Mears, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and current Penske driver coach and consultant.
Keselowski to start out front: Keselowski got some help on the last day of practice for NASCAR's Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Pole sitter Joey Logano was involved in a three-car accident during the first of two practice sessions Saturday, and will start from the rear of the field Sunday in a backup car.
That will move Keselowski, who had qualified third, to the front when the green flag drops Sunday. Marcos Ambrose will start on the outside.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP
Ford EcoBoost 400
At Homestead, Fla.
2 p.m. Sunday
Driver Points Back
1. Brad Keselowski 2,371 -
2. Jimmie Johnson 2,351 -20
3. Kasey Kahne 2,321 -50
4. Clint Bowyer 2,319 -52
5. Denny Hamlin 2,309 -62
6. Matt Kenseth 2,297 -74
7. Greg Biffle 2,293 -78
8. Kevin Harvick 2,285 -86
9. Tony Stewart 2,284 -87
10. Martin Truex Jr. 2,260 -111
11. Jeff Gordon 2,256 -115
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,211 -160
Lap Length: 1.5 miles
(Car number in parentheses)
Car maker abbreviations: C=Chevrolet, D=Dodge, F=Ford, T=Toyota
1. (20) J. Logano, T, 176.056.
2. (9) M. Ambrose, F, 175.342.
3. (2) Bra. Keselowski, D, 175.092.
4. (99) C. Edwards, F, 175.001.
5. (43) A. Almirola, F, 174.887.
6. (15) C. Bowyer, T, 174.752.
7. (56) M. Truex Jr., T, 174.644.
8. (18) Ky. Busch, T, 174.565.
9. (55) M. Martin, T, 174.452.
10. (48) J. Johnson, C, 174.081.
11. (17) M. Kenseth, F, 173.98.
12. (5) K. Kahne, C, 173.969.
13. (16) G. Biffle, F, 173.93.
14. (1) J. McMurray, C, 173.807.
15. (24) J. Gordon, C, 173.74.
16. (88) D. Earnhardt Jr., C, 173.472.
17. (22) S. Hornish Jr., D, 173.11.
18. (27) P. Menard, C, 173.077.
19. (39) R. Newman, C, 172.988.
20. (21) T. Bayne, F, 172.662.
21. (42) J. Pablo Montoya, C, 172.64.
22. (30) D. Stremme, T, 172.563.
23. (29) K. Harvick, C, 172.546.
24. (51) R. Smith, C, 172.507.
25. (98) M. McDowell, F, 172.474.
26. (78) Ku. Busch, C, 172.265.
27. (6) R. Stenhouse Jr., F, 172.106.
28. (13) C. Mears, F, 172.057.
29. (19) M. Bliss, T, 171.881.
30. (83) L. Cassill, T, 171.756.
31. (36) D. Blaney, C, 171.745.
32. (47) B. Labonte, T, 171.679.
33. (31) J. Burton, C, 171.63.
34. (34) D. Ragan, F, 171.581.
35. (14) T. Stewart, C, 171.483.
36. (26) J. Wise, F, 171.445.
37. (10) D. Reutimann, C, 171.222.
38. (93) T. Kvapil, T, 170.832.
39. (37) J. Yeley, C, 170.762.
40. (38) D. Gilliland, F, 170.665.
41. (11) D. Hamlin, T, Owner Points.
42. (32) K. Schrader, F, Owner Points.
43. (23) S. Riggs, C, 170.692.
Failed to Qualify
44. (79) R. Sorenson, F, 170.277.
45. (33) S. Leicht, C, 170.057.
46. (91) J. Leffler, T, 170.036.
47. (87) J. Nemechek, T, 169.609.
Original Print Headline: Keselowski is Penske material with title chase