HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — 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 40 years after entering 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 Racing wasn't exactly the dream destination for NASCAR talent.
Penske has won 23 national championships in and 15 Indianapolis 500s, and his passion and his focus are usually directed on the open wheel 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.
Rick Hendrick, winner of 10 Cup titles and owner of Johnson's car, echoed the sentiment and almost sounded as if he's rooting for Penske to finally win a title.
"I'll be the first one in Victory Lane to congratulate him if I can't win it," Hendrick said. "He's one of my best friends. I respect him. I think the world of him and his family and he just does a remarkable job at everything whether it's racing or the automobile business. He's just a hero of mine.
"And I don't know why he hasn't won yet, but I do know I don't run over in IndyCar, but if I did, I'd be spanked by him."
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.
"This hasn't been our main focus. Many of the teams running in NASCAR haven't had the responsibility of the IndyCar side, too," Penske said. "We've run the Porsche cars and the long-distance racing. But I think our focus today, we've emerged as a competitor. We've been good in the past, but we've never been able to close the deal. Hopefully that will be a different case this year."
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