Penske on verge of Cup supremacy
Brad Keselowski sat in a Detroit office four years ago, in the presence of the greatest owner in all of motorsports, and outlined eloquently and passionately his vision to give Penske Racing its first Sprint Cup championship.
Pretty bold for a perceived 24-year-old punk whose résumé included one Cup win for a part-time team and a handful of Nationwide Series wins for JR Motorsports.
Even bolder for Roger Penske to listen.
What makes Penske great as a race team owner and businessman in general is that he respects and listens to the opinions of others. What makes him great is that even at 75 he doesn't have an ego so big that he isn't willing to take calculated risks for the sake of progress regardless of who makes the suggestion.
So here Penske sits four years later with Keselowski, not considered a punk anymore, heading into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m., ESPN) with an almost insurmountable 20-point lead over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
The vision is almost fulfilled.
"One of Roger's great attributes is his ability to relate to people regardless of age, social or professional position, and to engage in real dialogue with them even if he may not subscribe to everything that he hears at the moment," said Walt Czarnecki, the executive vice president of Penske Corporation and one of Penske's closest friends. "It was not only the vision that was outlined, but also the passion and honesty with which it was delivered.
"Roger saw a talented young person who had begun the process of thinking through where he wanted to go with his career, and one who was single-minded and passionately invested in the process to get him there."
Not that the man known simply as "The Captain" needs a Cup title to go along with his 15 Indianapolis 500 titles and countless other titles in other series to validate his position in motorsports. Even Rick Hendrick, arguably the greatest owner in NASCAR with 10 Cup titles, admits that.
But a Cup title would fill a large void on Penske's résumé -- even if he won't admit it.
It would be even bigger for the members of his empire who want their boss to have the only real missing link in his legacy. Keselowski, as well-spoken as any driver in the garage, barely can find the words to describe what it would mean.
"I can describe it in experiences, things of that nature," he said. "From [my] grandfather and his start in this sport to my father and his struggles along the way, obviously my car owner Roger Penske and everything that he's done, to not have a championship, there's so many different levels that I don't know how you answer that question in this setting."
He just did. His struggle for the perfect answer spoke volumes of just how important Penske is to the lives of those around him.
Maybe that's because they know that Penske really doesn't want the title for himself as much as he does for them.
"On the surface of it, that one last box that hasn't been checked," Czarnecki said, "there's a spot on the shelf for the trophy. But I think it gets to a more personal level, from the standpoint he'll take a great deal of satisfaction out of seeing the people in the organization, after we've been through some travail over the last couple of years, succeed."
It's hard to believe Penske hasn't won a Cup title. It's even harder to believe it's been since 1993, when Rusty Wallace lost the championship by 80 points to Dale Earnhardt, that Penske has been a legitimate contender for the title.
You can explain that in part because Penske's focus, for the most part, has been on the IndyCar side. It wasn't until a couple of years ago, when the IndyCar and NASCAR organizations were merged into one mammoth facility in Mooresville, N.C., and there was a reorganization of key personnel, that one got the impression stock cars were much more than a hobby to this billionaire.
"It's about people. It's about commitment," Penske said when asked what has taken him so long to be in this position. "This hasn't been our main focus."
Said Czarnecki: "We competed. Let's put it that way."
In stepped Keselowski and his vision.
"I never forgot those words," Penske said.
Many of the parts and pieces already were in place. But they began to mesh and the company grew stronger as Penske trusted Keselowski to make key decisions, such as the hiring of crew chief Paul Wolfe.
"Willing to bet on people and their ideas has been a major factor in the building and growth of our overall company," Czarnecki said.
Keselowski may drive the car, but Penske drives the machine. He's the one who took a chance on a driver going through some pretty tough growing pains on the track. He used the same formula to build his more than 300 automobile dealerships and his truck rental company.
"It is a belief in the person," Czarnecki said.
So here Penske sits, on the verge of something that has eluded him through 1,571 Cup races and 76 victories.
"I don't want to start counting my chickens before things happen," Penske said last weekend at Phoenix, where a blown tire by Johnson put Keselowski in control. "We'll talk about how I feel if we get to that point."
You can't blame Penske for being cautious. Will Power had a 17-point lead going into the final race of the IndyCar Series in September only to crash on Lap 55 and lose the title by three points to Ryan Hunter-Reay.
In fact, Power lost the past three titles in the final race.
Winning the Cup title, Penske admits, "would go a long way in cleaning that up."
But Penske doesn't spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. Within hours of losing the IndyCar title, he was flying from Fontana, Calif., to Chicago to stand on the spotter's tower as Keselowski won the first race of the Chase.
"He's got an innate part of him that you see as a leader today, someone that is so focused and understands where he wants to go, and understands the goals," said Greg Penske, one of Penske's five children.
"In some cases, where you haven't hit those goals, he's, 'OK, it happened. Let's get over it and let's move on. It's great to talk about the past, but let's talk about today and where we're going.' That's probably one of his best traits that he has."
You won't find an owner in the garage more respected. As much as Hendrick hates the thought of losing the title, he says, "If we can't win it, there's nobody I'd rather see win it than Roger."
"He's paid his dues over here," Hendrick continued about the man he calls one of his closest friends. "He deserves to win one. We just had a trip together four or five weeks ago. We texted each other the other night [before the Phoenix] race. We said, 'Let's keep it in the family.'"
Penske has paid more than his dues. From Jeremy Mayfield to Kurt Busch to AJ Allmendinger, Penske has dealt with plenty during his 29 years in NASCAR, more than most other owners have encountered. But he's handled each situation with style and dignity, another reason he's so well-respected.
Mark Garrow discusses how Brad Keselowski doesn't want to see cars used as weapons. Plus, Jimmie Johnson goes to Homestead prepared to fight for his sixth Cup title.
Speaking of texting, that's something else Keselowski has brought to Penske's world. That and Twitter.
"He won't let me sleep," Penske said with a laugh earlier in the Chase. "I'll tell you that. I get Twitters. I'm a big texter now. If you want to know anything, just text me based on him. He and I are talking all the time. I've got to get to my day job sometimes, I tell him."
Penske sleeps? One never would guess it, the way he jets around the world in his private plane. His employees jokingly say the engine never shuts off because they never know when the boss will want to go somewhere.
Tireless takes on a whole new meaning around this man.
"He's always been the hardest worker in the company," Greg said.
Keselowski's vision has given Penske even more energy. Or let's say a revitalized energy -- at least in NASCAR.
"He's brought energy to the whole organization," Czarnecki said. "I've always said that our race team, that out of all of our companies, this is the hardest group of working people that we have.
"Well, they're working just as hard and maybe a little bit harder, but a lot more intense with a lot more focus. And Brad has helped bring that."
They are working hard to bring a Cup trophy to the lobby of the Mooresville shop that is overpowered by the 15 Indy 500 Borg-Warner Trophies and helmets of the winning drivers.
They are working hard to bring Penske the Cup title that he is long overdue -- something that has eluded him since Donnie Allison drove the first race for Penske Racing in 1972.
"When I first came to Penske Racing, I viewed it as an organization with so much potential," Keselowski said. "I had a vision for what I knew this place could become, and I shared that with Mr. Penske in our first meeting together."
It was a bold move for a perceived 24-year-old punk.
It was an even bolder move for a legend to listen and respond.
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