JOLIET, Ill. – On Saturday night Roger Penske lost the IndyCar title. By Sunday afternoon another of his drivers led the points in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
An extraordinary 24 hours in an extraordinary life. Will Power lost the title by three points; Brad Keselowski won the Geico 400 to take the points lead after Round 1 of the Chase by the same number.
In a career that spans nearly five decades, Penske has built an automotive empire that's made him a household name, whether you're a race fan or not. Moving? Call Penske, he'll rent you a truck. Need to buy a car? Head to one of his 300-plus dealerships and he'll sell you one.
While he amassed a billion-dollar fortune on the back of keen entrepreneurship, his heart has always been in racing, and he's pretty good at that, too. If you ever want to win the Indy 500, well, he's your man for that, having won 15 of them – more than any other owner in the history of the great race. As an owner, he's won just about everything there is to win in American motorsports – races, championships, the respect of the entire industry, so much so he's called "The Captain."
The one omission on his résumé is a Sprint Cup championship. He's been in the sport 29 years, won 72 races and helped make Rusty Wallace a Hall of Famer. But he's never won a title.
Truth be told, his passion within racing is on the open-wheel side – his roots. NASCAR is the hobby within a hobby, which is why on most race weekends where there's a conflict you'll find him with his IndyCar team.
That's where his weekend started out Saturday night, in California, where Power went into the season finale with a 17-point lead, only to see it evaporate in a crash 55 laps in. Ryan Hunter-Reay took advantage, finished fourth and the championship was his by a measly three points.
Penske shook off the loss, hopped on a plane and landed in Chicago sometime around 10 a.m. Sunday morning.
Three years ago he signed an unproven Keselowski, who in a short span has morphed from bucktoothed sidekick of Dale Earnhardt Jr. into de facto garage philosopher and legit championship contender. Keselowski came into this year's Chase, his second since joining the Cup Series full time in 2010, seeded third and, considering he scored more points than anyone over the last half of the regular season, a serious threat to provide Penske with that first Cup championship.
The weekend didn't start well for Keselowski, either. On Friday, as he was making his way onto the track for practice, an official put up his hand to stop. Seeing it at the last second, Keselowski hit the brakes, only to have Martin Truex Jr. ram into his back bumper.
A slight setback, but a setback nonetheless. Keselowski never wavered though, not when Jimmie Johnson streaked out to lead most of the first 100 laps, not when he was sandwiched between a trio of Hendrick cars (Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon), and not when he came off pit road on that final pit stop with under 30 laps to go, bolted onto the track before the white line permitted him to and shot right in front of Johnson's charging No. 48.
It was a brash move, one that halted Johnson's momentum. Johnson would say later the move didn't cost him the victory, that Keselowski likely would have won the race anyway. The take away is that Keselowski showed he's not afraid of forcing NASCAR to make a judgment call and that when it comes to a head-to-head battle with the five-time champion many have picked to win number six this year, he can come out ahead.
"We all know how good his team is," Keselowski said of Johnson. "We all know how good he is. And look at the résumé over the last six years. Hey, look at the résumé over the last 10 years. It's impeccable. To be racing him, whether it was for the lead or for 10th is an accomplishment."
The lead is more likely. The victory pushed Keselowski to the top of the Cup standings, three points clear of Johnson. The bulk of the Chase field is within 26 points, the outlier being Gordon, whose stuck throttle sent him into the wall and tumbling down the standings. One race in, Gordon (-47 points) is a full race out.
Afterward, with at least one victory in hand, the 75-year-old Penske sat in the media center at Chicagoland Speedway talking about the energy the 28-year-old Keselowski has brought to his team, which has been through a rough 12 months. Penske let Kurt Busch go last December because of behavioral issues, parted ways with his replacement AJ Allmendinger in July after a failed drug test and has dealt with the pending departure of its manufacturer Dodge, which is leaving the sport at year's end.
"He won't let me sleep, I'll tell you that," Penske said of Keselowski. "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 sometimes, I tell him."
Three years ago Keselowski told Penske he wanted to bring him a championship. The message hasn't changed. The only difference now is it's not just talk.
Penske may have lost one championship this season. Keselowski's determined to not let him lose another.
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