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The man who created 'Penske-perfect' is about to win the NASCAR championship, at long last

The man who created 'Penske-perfect' is about to win the NASCAR championship, at long last

The Captain wields a mean champagne bottle in victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

    The Captain, as Roger Penske is known, is on the verge of one of his greatest victories ever, the NASCAR championship.
    It's taken him some 40 years....since that first run in the late winter of '72 at old Riverside, with Mark Donohue. Remember those Matador days?
    Now, 1,396 races later, Penske is about to finish the job that couldn't be done even with legends like Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace.
    Brad Keselowski, take a bow.
    Penske, who has studied racing talent from just about every angle, including Formula 1, says Keselowski reminds him most of legendary Rick Mears. High praise indeed.
    And Penske says, after all these years, he is "thrilled" to be on the brink of making such big history, with the final touches anticipated in Sunday's Homestead 400.
   Barring a big surprise or some disaster.
   Keselowski need finish only 15th or better, no matter what Jimmie Johnson does, to win the Sprint Cup title. If Keselowski leads a lap, he need finish only 16th. There are several 'tying' scenarios; if Johnson wins, and the two tie, Johnson would take the title, based on wins, 6-5. If the two tie, and Johnson doesn't win the 400, Johnson would still take the title, with more second place finishes over the season.


  Jimmie Johnson: desperate. Head games? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   However Las Vegas is already banking on a Keselowski title. He's a 1-to-15 bet to win it; Johnson is 10-1.
   At the start of this season Johnson was the title favorite in Vegas, 9-2, and Keselowski was a 20-1.
   So it hasn't been that bad a season at all for Keselowski, who at the start of 2011 was a whopping 300-to-1 long shot in Vegas championship odds.
   Now Penske is about to beat stock car kingpin Rick Hendrick at his own game -- and with one of the men Hendrick, inexplicably, let get away. Hendrick-engineered teams have won six straight Cup championships and 11 of the last 17. No wonder Penske calls Johnson-Hendrick 'the gold standard' in this sport.


   Brad Keselowski: NASCAR's Mr. Twitter (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    This is only Keselowski's third season with Penske. "He's earned the respect of the garage, the drivers, the crews, the officials, and certainly he's gained a lot of fans," Penske says. 
    "Early on, he was rough, he was bumping people.  There was that with Carl Edwards and other people.
    "But he's learned, like a lot of the great drivers who have gone through that rough patch."
     Keselowski's performances this season have been remarkably consistent. And places where he hasn't been good in other years, he's been good this year.
   "It's been consistency," Penske says. "And I think he's a great athlete."
   Well, yes, but what has made Keselowski a championship contender is how he stole a page from the Jimmie Johnson playoff playbook and took command of the race right from the start, with that upsetting victory at Chicago. 
   And then at Martinsville Keselowski rebounded brilliantly from a very poor starting spot, to hang in the title game with the surging Johnson.
   Again at Texas Keselowski surprised, challenging Johnson so hard that Tony Stewart, the sport's defending champ, joked that Keselowski "must have a death wish."


   That first championship has been so long in coming.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    That's all impressed Penske, who at times has seemed almost giddy about the title run.
    a great athlete, a great race driver but also someone that's thinking.  He's a thinkingman's driver, which is very important in today's sport."
   Now, if Penske he still has that big boat parked just down in the Keys, there could be some great partying in the making. (Remember when Penske, fellow team owners Felix Sabates and Dale Earnhardt, and Bill France Jr., would informally battle it out over who could bring the biggest boat to the NASCAR parties?)
    "We're very fortunate to have him part of Penske Racing.  He's made us a better team," Penske says.
   Penske then adds that Keselowski is "a lot like Rick Mears -- really understated, but someone who, when it was time, can dig deep and make it happen.
    "...a pretty special class as far as I'm concerned.
 "Brad is in contact with me every day, and you know how," Penske said with a laugh. "I'm not a tweeter at this point.  Maybe next year. 
   "But he's passionate about the sport, and he wants me to be involved, as he has the rest of the team. And we've stepped it up. 
    "I'm very anxious to have Joey (Logano) join;  Joey seems to be the same kind of person.
    "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, and deliver."

  Two years ago Roger Penske and Brad Keselowski took the Nationwide championship. Now they're just hours away from the Sprint Cup title (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   That it's taken Penske so long to get to this point is surprising. Past surprising, really.
   Signing 1989 champ Rusty Wallace for the 1991 season was one of his best moves. They made good runs at the title in 1993 (2nd to Earnhardt) and 1994 (3rd, to Earnhardt).
    But that was then and this is now, and times have changed considerably. "It's not about how much money you have, and what you can buy for the track; it's about the people," Penske says. "It's about the human capital we've been able to put together.
    "This business has changed.  It's a little more technical now, a little more in our bailiwick. And we're executing."

    Hanging over this championship is Penske's pending move to Ford for 2013, after 10 years with Dodge.
    Dodge officials have been scarce this season since Penske announced in March he would move to Ford.
    Dodge's Ralph Gilles did show up at Phoenix last Saturday but didn't stay for Sunday's 500K.
    Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne, who apparently has never seen a NASCAR Cup race, is reported to be in Austin, Texas, this weekend for the Formula 1 race.

    Any advice from Penske for Dodge/Chrysler execs and NASCAR?
     "Dodge obviously has been a great partner," Penske says. "The support they've given us over this last 12 months has been doubled up. 
     "We have a great relationship.  We represent them in the retail auto network (three Dodge dealerships); so we're a big supporter of their products.
    "I've talked to Dodge about what might be available," Penske says. "We've got 16 Nationwide cars and probably 60 engines, and I said that it might be a good idea, if there are some young people out there, people you want to support, that you take the things we have and run them.
    "We've got some parts and pieces that might be pretty good for someone.  That's a sales call I just made."
   Pointedly, for certain.
   Why Dodge-Chrysler hasn't stepped up isn't clear. If Dodge drops out of NASCAR for a year, no telling how far behind it could fall. And it's not really clear that Dodge, for 2014, could find any more powerhouse teams on the market than right now.
   "I think there's a strong interest to get back in," Penske insists. "I see them very interested in the sport. I hope to see them back in '14.
    "And maybe our results might help accelerate that -- for them to get back in the sport fulltime."


   The powers behind Brad Keselowski: Roger Penske (L) and crew chief Paul Wolfe (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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