By Jenna Fryer | Associated Press
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It had been a humbling 24 hours of championship racing for Roger Penske when he settled in for the plane ride back to Detroit.
His heart had been broken in California, where Will Power coughed away the IndyCar title by crashing out of the season finale. The disappointed team owner then made his way to Chicago for the opening race of NASCAR's 10-race championship series, where Penske driver Brad Keselowski stole a surprise win over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
It was a tremendous emotional swing for Penske, who said to no one in particular on that flight home, "Well, we raced with the big boys today. And we won."
"That really struck me when he said that, because Fontana was the lowest of the lows, a tough night," said Walt Czarnecki, a Penske executive for more than 40 years. "To come back the next day and win Chicago with Brad, it was such a turning point for Roger. He was energized to race with the big boys, and to beat them. And to do it after losing Fontana with Will. It helped."
Penske, the most successful team owner in open-wheel history, has little to show for 40 years of NASCAR. Keselowski, the 28-year-old blue collar antiestablishment Michigan native, could change that for "The Captain" -- just as he promised in a passionate speech to Penske four years ago.
Keselowski takes a 20-point lead over Johnson into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where a finish of 15th or better will give Penske his first Sprint Cup title. It would have been his first ever NASCAR championship if Keselowski hadn't won him a second-tier Nationwide title in 2010 -- his first season with Penske Racing.
These are the trophies Keselowski vowed to deliver when he reached out to Penske in 2008.
He was driving for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and locked into a developmental deal with Hendrick Motorsports, but didn't see a Cup ride opening anytime soon. So he asked Penske what he had available, even though Penske wasn't exactly the dream destination for NASCAR talent.
Penske has won 23 national championships in open wheel racing and 15 Indianapolis 500s, and his passion and his focus are usually on directed on that part of the motorsports program. Although his NASCAR organization had 61 wins before Keselowski arrived, it only contended for a championship once -- in 1993 when Rusty Wallace won 10 races and still finished second to Dale Earnhardt.
It's a baffling hole in the resume of one of the most successful businessmen in America.
"Roger Penske is an unbelievable owner and person, and what's surprising is he hasn't won more championships, multiple championships," NASCAR chairman Brian France said Saturday.
Rick Hendrick, winner of 10 Cup titles and owner of Johnson's car, echoed the sentiment and almost sounded as if he's rooting for Penske to finally win a title.
"I'll be the first one in Victory Lane to congratulate him if I can't win it," Hendrick said. "He's one of my best friends. I respect him. I think the world of him and his family and he just does a remarkable job at everything whether it's racing or the automobile business. He's just a hero of mine.
"And I don't know why he hasn't won yet, but I do know I don't run over in IndyCar, but if I did, I'd be spanked by him."
In fairness, Penske was out of NASCAR from 1981 until 1991, and Czarnecki said they discovered "the sport had clearly changed" upon their return. And Penske himself has admitted that NASCAR wasn't always a priority to him.
"This hasn't been our main focus. Many of the teams running in NASCAR haven't had the responsibility of the IndyCar side, too," Penske said. "We've run the Porsche cars and the long-distance racing. But I think our focus today, we've emerged as a competitor. We've been good in the past, but we've never been able to close the deal. Hopefully that will be a different case this year."
It can be traced to Keselowski, who demands more of Penske's time and energy simply by being himself. He's relentless in his passion and enthusiasm for winning and wanting to turn Penske Racing into an elite NASCAR organization, and he presented Penske with a list of things he and crew chief Paul Wolfe believed were needed for the team to be better.
"They provide me with a list of the things that they feel we can make the team better and the car better, to the point Brad thought we should upgrade our fitness center," Penske said. "Nothing to do with racing, but the team, human capital."
Keselowski, a constant texter and tweeter, keeps the 75-year-old Penske busy on his phone. Texting. Texting. Texting. Constantly engaging with the race team.
Those who have been with Penske from the beginning see similarities in the relationship between owner and driver to the one Penske had with Rick Mears, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and current Penske driver coach and consultant.
"Roger was so impressed with Rick as a person starting from the very beginning, they just clicked," said Dan Luginbuhl, Penske's vice president, emeritus. "You need people that are dedicated, that are 110 percent all-in. Rick Mears was one of those people, and I suspect Brad Keselowski is one of those people."
Penske is one of those people. His motto for all of his companies is "effort equals results," and it's not lip service, either. The race track is his weekend golf game, and figuring out how to get to Victory Lane is his recreation.
"Nobody is working harder throughout the company than my father and people see that," son Greg Penske said. "I think the culture he has set of doing things only one way, and that's the right way, that's how we operate our businesses. People see that and they understand when they wear our logo and wear the Penske brand, it means quality and it means performance. He's built that, and when people see him work hard, it makes you want to work hard.
"That's been instilled in all of his children and all of his employees: You work hard to get ahead. That's the message he teaches."
Now all the hard work, all the effort put into 1,396 entries dating to 1972, will be rewarded Sunday barring some bizarre setback. It can happen, though, and it did two months ago to Power at Fontana. But should the "Blue Deuce" team follow the Penske plan and fill that void on the impressive Penske resume, the team owner won't want his employees thinking it's about him.
"Sure, it will be wonderful for him, but it will be more of a statement about the building of an organization," Czarnecki said. "Roger gets as much enjoyment out of seeing the people who contributed enjoy the fruits of what they've done. It's not about him. His success is built on his humanity. Roger doesn't hold himself up over anyone else in the organization."
"He respects people, whether it's the guy sweeping the floor or the bank president. He's able to extract performance from people that way."