Roger Penske’s license plate reads “Indy 1.” Now he’s thinking of changing it to “NASCAR 1.”
The most celebrated car owner in IndyCar racing always said a Sprint Cup Series championship would match anything he’s ever accomplished in other forms of racing. It took him 41 years and 18 different drivers, but Penske finally earned his spot on NASCAR’s head table when Brad Keselowski finished 15th last Sunday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway to fend off a challenge from five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Like each of Penske’s 12 IndyCar championships or 15 Indianapolis 500 wins, there were moments that defined his newest championship.
First, Keselowski displayed an amazing ability to have fun with the pressures and demands in the Chase for the Championship. He embraced his moment in the limelight by staying engaged with his fans through Twitter. Although it’s impossible to know what was going on inside, Keselowski never lost his smile or playful demeanor, even when Johnson tried to create pressure during the final week by reminding him how Penske’s IndyCar team with driver Will Power lost the championship at the season-finale by crashing.
“Well there’s two types of pressure,” Keselowski said. “There’s pressure applied and pressure felt. Certainly he (Johnson) tried to apply pressure; certainly I didn’t feel any.
“I want the pressure. That’s what makes it worth something. Without having a motivation, it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t strip away your motivation just to remove yourself from pressure because then you can’t justify your existence.”
Another part of Keselowski’s championship was the failures of everyone else in the Chase.
Keselowski’s worst race in the 10-race playoff was 15th at Homestead. He won two races and had eight top-10 finishes in the Chase.
Everyone else had at least one finish of 20th or worse, including Johnson who closed out the playoffs with consecutive finishes of 32nd and 36th. Eight of the 12 had two or more finishes outside the top 20.
A year ago Tony Stewart won five races in the Chase to win the championship in a tiebreaker. He also scored 403 points.
Despite winning three fewer races, Keselowski came within just 12 points to matching Stewart’s point total.
“It’s a good rule of thumb if you score 400 points in the Chase that you can win it, and I think that was the point I made third or fourth race in,” Keselowski said. “Didn’t I say 40 points a race would win it? Dang, I feel good about that. I like being right.”
Another reason for Keselowski’s success was Dodge.
Although the car company is leaving the sport because Roger Penske decided early he was switching to Ford next year, Dodge remained committed to leaving as a winner.
Keselowski had his teammates in the No. 22 Dodge competed in all 36 races without blowing up a single engine, and that was something Penske said was critical.
“Not one failure all year long in the Dodge engine, so I want to thank Dodge for what they have done for us and all the people,” Penske said.
Finally, so much of Keselowski’s mettle came from his family of racers. His father, Bob, won the 1989 ARCA Racing Series championship. His brother, Brian, is a driver. All have built and maintained their own cars, so Keselowski brought a hands-on background to Penske Racing.
Penske said his 28-year-old driver reminds him of one of his former drivers, Indy 500 winner Mark Donohue.
“I remember many nights Mark Donohue would work all night in the shop and get in the truck and tow the car to the races, and that’s the kind of background that Brad had with his dad and his brother and uncle and what have you, and I think that Brad has become a technician,” Penske said. “I mean, he’s smart, he’s engineering savvy.
“But I see them as pure team players, and I think that’s the great teams, you look at Jimmie (Johnson), you look at Jeff (Gordon), you look at (Dale) Earnhardt, all these guys, what they built, the camaraderie, think about Earnhardt Sr. and (car owner Richard) Childress, these things grow together, and I think what’s what we did with Mark and obviously that’s what Brad has been able to do for our team.”
As well as bringing Penske his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
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