If anyone could have bought a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, it would have been Roger Penske.
The affable racer-turned-industrialist certainly could rely on his resources to support his motorsports habit.
And while Penske’s success in open-wheel racing is unprecedented, with 15 Indianapolis 500 victories and 12 IndyCar titles, his return on investment in the form of hardware has not been nearly as profitable over four decades of stock-car competition.
Yes, the Captain enlisted champions and Hall of Famers such as Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch in his quest for NASCAR’s Cup. But it was his partnership with fellow Michigander Brad Keselowski that led Penske Racing to the pinnacle of the sport.
“He’s passionate about the sport …,” Penske said. “And I think that we’ve stepped it up.
“Brad has not only pushed me as an individual, he’s pushed the team in a positive direction, and he’s delivering. It’s one thing when someone is pushing you and they don’t deliver, but he seems to be able to give us that extra push but deliver on the race weekends, and that’s what we’re expecting him to do …”
It’s not that those same expectations didn’t exist for Penske’s previous drivers. Penske set the bar high during the early Wallace era when the company barely missed the title with the 1989 Cup champ in 1993 and 1994. The Blue Deuce finished second and third, respectively, in the points standings. In 2006, Penske recruited Busch two years after his successful championship run. But Busch’s best result during his Penske tenure was fourth in the points standings.
While no one would question the talent level of either driver, as both drivers had won championships prior to joining Penske Racing, did the desire and determination exist to persevere at a company where the focus always had been on open wheel and stock cars were an afterthought?
“There’s something between those two,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition and former Penske Racing crew chief for Wallace. “There’s something that clicked between Roger and Brad. Rusty and Roger clicked, but I think there’s been a bit of a void since then and I think these two guys right now are team-wise and all of that stuff.
“As much as Rusty became a fixture at Penske Racing, I can see the same thing happening with Brad. Brad kind of floated around a little bit with his own deal, then with (Dale Earnhardt JR Motorsports) and (Rick) Hendrick’s (teams). His piece didn’t fit in those puzzles. I think he fits right now.
“I can see this being a really, really long relationship. I really can. Because I think that Brad’s appreciative of that and I think that comes from probably as a child being brought up in the industry and seeing different things and getting where he is today. I think he appreciates it.”
At 28, Keselowski’s sole motivation is racing and winning. Unlike Wallace and Busch, he hasn’t allowed himself the time to indulge in the trappings associated with professional sports that would detour him from concentrating on the prize. Penske quickly realized that “this is about an opportunity” and now was the time to capitalize.
Certainly, the organizations that outperformed Penske Racing over the past two decades were focused entirely on NASCAR. Penske, a self-proclaimed goal-oriented person, acknowledged that the company spread itself too thin across too many different series. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the NASCAR breakthrough took the longest to materialize.
But just before Keselowski arrived three years ago, the tide began to turn at Penske Racing. In 2009, the company crafted its first full-time Nationwide Series team behind Justin Allgaier. The company finally had invested in a stock-car farm club with Allgaier, Parker Kligerman and Dakota Armstrong. The following season, Keselowski joined the NNS effort and delivered Penske his first NASCAR title. With the success that Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe enjoyed on the Nationwide side, Penske paired the two with similar aspirations in Sprint Cup.
“We stayed on our plan,” Penske said. “Obviously, Paul Wolfe was a great operator from the standpoint of getting Brad where he needed to be, pulling this team together over the last three years. He’s been amazing.”
When Keselowski arrived in 2010, he felt “all the pieces were there” but needed to be “put in the right order” with the proper investment of time and energy. In two years, Wolfe and Keselowski amassed eight victories, 23 top-five finishes, 37 top-10 finishes and two Chase for the Sprint Cup berths — including this season’s, through which he won the championship.
However, it was Keselowski’s enthusiasm and commitment that prompted Penske to buy in — all the way in.
“It’s not about how much money you have and what you can buy on the racetrack,” Penske said. “It’s about the people. It’s about the human capital that we’ve been able to put together. Brad is right at the top.
“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.”
One year ago, when Busch parted ways with the company, Penske placed a new expectation on his young driver. He insisted that Keselowski take over the responsibility of leading the team. Keselowski did not take the challenge lightly.
“I said to him, ‘You’re going to be the leader of this team,’ and I think that you’ve seen what’s happened,” Penske said. “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 an organization and seeing them flourish, and he certainly has.”
Still, Keselowski feels the organization has yet to reach its potential. He is convinced that this is just the beginning of Penske Racing’s success.
“We can do anything we set our mind to if we work together like we have over the last few years,” Keselowski said. “I really do (believe that). And I just feel so fortunate to be where I’m at right now in life and with racing, to have guys like this around me because you’re a product of who you surround yourself by, and I’m surrounded by the best.”
With Penske’s worldwide reach, Pemberton believes his former team’s success will pay dividends far beyond the immediate boost to NASCAR.
“As much as Rick Hendrick has meant to the sport and all these other owners, you don’t play down their importance. But when you look at Roger Penske, he is a global player,” Pemberton said. “And there are big gains to be made. I think the banquet with Roger being there is important. He’s that guy that everyone wants to win.
“It helps Hendrick Motorsports and Rick Hendrick in particular to have his friend win — and they are friends — and that’s good for our sport. There’s a general appreciation for each organization. It doesn’t happen in football, baseball or basketball. They don’t appreciate each other. The Knicks don’t appreciate the Lakers and Detroit doesn’t appreciate the Yankees. But when you look at our sport, we’re different because we all compete and it breeds that.”