Brad Keselowski (2) side by side with NASCAR's 'gold standard,' Jimmie Johnson
By Mike Mulhern
Roger Penske, just a day after losing the Indy-car championship in the Los Angeles finale Saturday night, bounded down from the spotters' stand high above Chicagoland Speedway Sunday afternoon to congratulate Brad Keselowski on his somewhat surprising victory in the NASCAR playoff opener...a victory that puts Keselowski atop the NASCAR Cup standings for the first time in his career.
Penske has done many very impressive things in his legendary career. But winning a NASCAR Cup championship is still on his bucket list.
However this season Penske may have his best shot in years, maybe ever at that elusive title.
"After last night at California Speedway, I wasn't sure what to expect when I came here," Penske said, reflecting the disappointment. "But Brad said he had a good car. We qualified better than we have over the last several weeks.
"He won't let me sleep, 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' I tell him.
"We looked, coming into the chase, how it was the last 12 races and what our consistency had been. And it looked like we had done a pretty good job.
"We've got a new car here. He is certainly focused.
"Brad has brought a lot to the team. And Paul Wolfe, they're just like brothers working together.
"And the engine shop gave us the best power we've had all year.
"It's ironic -- we win this race... and we're moving on from Dodge. But the Dodge engineering team really supported us."
Yes, all that, but Penske was clearly all but gleeful at beating Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick guys, whom he called this sport's 'gold standard.'
"To be able to race the 48.... we've been wanting to race the 48 for as many years as I think I've been in this sport," Penske said. "And to able to race him side by side for 100 laps like that.....
"Then that last pit stop was about 12.9, which got us out there in good shape."
Of course for Penske and Keselowski, the win was almost dearly needed, as much as they'd put on the line in talking so much about that trick rear end gear the Hendrick teams had been using since at least early May, a piece now banned by NASCAR.
"I didn't get involved with the discussion on the suspension," Penske said. "But I can tell you the best scrutineers in the business are the other teams.
"We could see that. And I take my hat off to them -- technically they're so far ahead many times, that we're trying to not only see what they're doing but do something better.
"It's interesting... when was the last time we were parked next to them in the garage? (Parking spots are based on the point standings.)
"Eyes are going both directions. We're looking at their stuff; they're looking at ours. It's pretty interesting.
"But to me, they're the benchmark."
Several of the title contenders didn't fare well, and Jeff Gordon, who just slipped in the playoffs in the final miles of last weekend's Richmond 400, may have just fallen too far behind, with the stuck throttle that put him in the wall here.
"We were having a good day," Gordon reflected. "The guys did an awesome job in the pits and tuning on the car, and who knows what we could have done with them at the end.
"But we had a throttle stick. It didn't stick wide-open. I just let off the throttle and it just didn't come all the way back.
"We're looking at what the issue is.
"But in this deal, you can't afford to have issues like that."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was kicking himself for messing up in practice and damaging his engine, forcing a change which put him at the rear of the field for the start of the 400.
"I was disappointed with myself in making the mistake with the engine and getting us that far back at the start of the race," Earnhardt said, though he did rally to finish eighth.
"I made a mistake -- We ran a qualifying lap, and when you cross the finish line you bump it out of gear, which is what I’ve done every time I've run a qualifying lap. But I bumped it out of gear and it went in third and over-revved the engine, way over.
"To win the championship, we're going to have to turn days like that -- those kind of mistakes -- around into wins and top threes.
"You can't run eighth every week and win the championship."