- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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Forty years after he arrived in NASCAR, Roger Penske is very close to arriving at its pinnacle. If he gets there, he might just stay there for a while.
He wouldn't go there by conjecture -- "We're not on the stage yet [accepting the Sprint Cup], so I don't want to get ahead of myself," he said Sunday morning in the garage area at Talladega.
But I'll go there for him. The possibilities here are too dramatic, too landmark to ignore.
Here's "The Captain" with his best-fitting choice ever of a NASCAR driver, Brad Keselowski -- and I say that with all due respect to Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and all the others, and with acknowledgement that Penske's other choice for this year, AJ Allmendinger, didn't work out.
Penske and Keselowski have the only Dodge in the Chase, and they're leading it. They have the lame-duck manufacturer soaring.
And as they switch to Ford for next year, they figure to have as smooth a transition as any other team to the new 2013 body designs, "a huge equalizer," Keselowski called it, because all teams and manufacturers will be starting from scratch.
"You couldn't pick a better time period to switch manufacturers," Keselowski said at Talladega. "You're looking at a complete overhaul of the bodies on the cars, which is one of the biggest expenditures that we have."
Last winter, entering the last season of a five-year deal with Dodge, Penske saw that, "If you're going to make a change, this was the time to do it, because they had to change the cars over. As it turned out, it's perfect. We get the benefit of the work that's been done by Ford. [As the only Dodge team] we had to do all the work ourselves. So we're probably a step ahead in that direction of where we would have been if we were doing it by ourselves."
For these 40 years since Penske arrived at Riverside, Calif., with Mark Donohue to compete in their first NASCAR race, in 1972, Penske Racing has won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 12 Indy car championships.
But never a Cup.
And now Penske is as close as he has ever been. Probably closer.
He bristled a bit at my asking whether a new era, a higher echelon, is on the horizon for Penske Racing in NASCAR.
"No, I don't think that would be true," he said. "I think we've worked hard for 25 or 30 years [he mentally subtracted the 10-year hiatus he took from NASCAR from 1981 to '91] and we've run well [76 wins]. We were close to the championship when we won 10 races one year with Rusty [1993, when they finished second to Dale Earnhardt]."
As for a higher echelon, "If you haven't been on the stage, you're not in that echelon. We're not on the stage yet."
But they've been doing everything they need to do. Keselowski leads Jimmie Johnson by 14 points in the standings, has the most wins in the Chase (two) and is tied with Denny Hamlin for most wins this season (five).
More importantly, Keselowski has thus far been both masterful and lucky in salvaging points on days he hasn't had the winning car. At Talladega, he wasn't able to lead a lap -- and not because of any lay-back plan; he ran as far up front as he could all race.
Then he managed to maneuver through the 25-car pileup on the last lap and finish seventh, to Johnson's 17th.
And then of course there's the matter of Keselowski's attitude: focused, positive, but most of all cool. Going into Talladega, I pressed him on whether he might have the most to lose in the scramble at Casino de Alabama.
"We could very well leave here with a bigger points lead," he countered.
And he did -- his lead more than survived the great scrambler of all Chase races.
And now Keselowski and The Captain have a lot more control over their stretch run to what would be the first Cup for both the 28-year-old driver and the 75-year-old owner. (They're about the same age, if you measure by enthusiasm.)
They did win the Nationwide championship together in 2010, Penske's first championship in NASCAR. But that wasn't even close to what a Cup would mean on the record of the man who has been America's most diversified team owner for 40 years, but who, for all his labors, hasn't yet won America's most prestigious motor racing championship.
They're ahead, but not comfortably, of the most title-seasoned team in Cup, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. But thus far they have kept their nerve under pursuit from the five-time champions.
The only help Keselowski can count on is from non-Chaser teammate Sam Hornish Jr., driving out the year for Penske after Allmendinger's suspension for violation of NASCAR's drug policy.
In so many ways, the Blue Deuce team is flying all alone through this Chase, which makes the soaring all the more remarkable.
It's all well worth conjecture. If they make it to the stage, Penske and Keselowski will be the most refreshing presence there in memory -- Penske with perhaps the hardest-earned championship, over more time, of any owner and Keselowski with all that pizzazz, on and off the track, that NASCAR so badly needs in a champion.
And they'll have struck a resounding blow for the smaller teams against the three- and four-car armadas.
Penske wouldn't "get ahead of myself," but I will. Their first time on the stage just might not be their last.
Roger Penske has won 15 Indianapolis 500s and a dozen Indy car championships. But never a Cup. Can Brad Keselowski finally give The Captain what every one of his predecessors couldn't?