(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer
It was just a year ago that Penske Racing, or at least its NASCAR branch, appeared to be in total turmoil.
Kurt Busch used a meltdown over his team radio at Richmond to assail all the shortcomings he saw at Penske. It certainly got the attention of team management, and behind-the-scene changes began almost immediately.
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The performance began to improve, too, especially for Brad Keselowski. Spurred in part by Busch’s claim that it had been years since he’d had a competitive teammate, Keselowski went on to win three races and earn a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Now, a year removed from that low point for the proud Penske organization, things couldn’t be better. Keselowski’s win on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway – the first for team owner Roger Penske – was his second of the season and cemented him as a strong contender to give Penske his first Cup championship.
And, oh, by the way, Penske’s IndyCar team is pretty good, too. His drivers have combined to win all four races and all four poles so far this season, and begin Saturday preparing for the Indianapolis 500 – a race the organization has won 15 times.
”I’m not king of the world, I’ll tell you that for sure,” Penske said. ”I think we made some changes last year after Richmond. We had a plan. I think everybody stuck together. Kurt was a big help there, obviously as we got going with getting in the Chase. I think you’ve seen this year this year we’ve been very competitive.
”On the IndyCar side, when you win the first four races, can’t do much better than that. Overall, I think we’ve got a great season going. It’s a credit really to our people.”
It was Keselowski who gave Penske his only NASCAR title, in 2010 in the second-tier Nationwide Series. Otherwise, the most decorated team owner in motorsports has been shutout. Penske first joined in NASCAR in 1972, but was out of the series from 1981 through 1990.
The opportunity to take Penske to the head table at the season-ending awards ceremony is why Keselowski chose the organization over everybody else in NASCAR when he got out of his developmental deal with Hendrick Motorsports after the 2009 season.
”I want to be that first guy. I feel like (Penske’s) dedicated to making that happen,” Keselowski said. ”I look as some of the other elite car owners in the sport, and I don’t want this to be offensive, but to win another Cup championship for Hendrick or Richard Childress is not the same as winning the first for Roger Penske. That’s a whole different accomplishment.
”I think he’s certainly paid his dues in this sport, has that reputation as … a titan for a reason, and that is that he can get it done. I want to be the guy that proves it in the record books.”
Keselowski is ranked 12th in the Sprint Cup standings, but those two wins should pretty much guarantee him at least one of the two wild card slots in the 12-driver Chase. That’s how he got in last year, when three regular-season victories locked him into the championship field, and Keselowski finished fifth in the final standings.
This year, he’s shown versatility with wins at Talladega and Bristol.
At Talladega, he used a calculated last-lap move to stave off Kyle Busch and become the first driver in five races at the 2.66-mile superspeedway to take the white flag and hold on for the victory. His win on the 0.533-mile Bristol bullring was more dominant: he led 232 of the 500 laps and held off Matt Kenseth on a late restart.
”I wouldn’t trade him for anybody right now,” Penske said.
He feels the same way about his other drivers, too.
Kurt Busch is no longer with the team, and replacement AJ Allmendinger does not yet have the results to match the potential he’s shown. He’s qualified on the front row three times this season, and has qualified in the top four of four of the last seven races. But he’s got just one top-10 finish to show for his efforts.
”We’re starting to see glimmers of hope, and believe that that’s going to come around, and we’ve let him down a couple of times,” said Penske president Tim Cindric. ”But we think we’ve got the potential to see the same kind of story with AJ that we saw last year with Brad, when he turned it around.”
On the IndyCar side, Will Power has won the last three races and goes into Indy as the points leader. Helio Castroneves won the season opener, and Ryan Briscoe has been fast – he won the pole at Long Beach – but like Allmendinger doesn’t have the results yet.
Cindric believes the first step toward raising both programs to the same level was merging the IndyCar operation into the same building as the NASCAR part, which was done in 2007. He figured it would take three to four years to get the NASCAR piece turned around, ”and it’s taken a little bit longer.
”You take the good from both types. We didn’t make the NASCAR team similar to the IndyCar team, or vice versa,” he said. ”I think over time we’ve been able to take the best of both worlds, take the good out of both, and you couldn’t do that unless they were in the same building. We are now starting to see more and more of the payback.”