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Menzer: Penske finally achieves his 'lifelong goal'

November 19, 2012, Joe Menzer,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Keselowski leads owner to first Cup championship in four decades of racing

A championship 40 years in the making came to fruition Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Roger Penske couldn't stop talking about everyone but himself.

Penske, the owner who fielded his first NASCAR entry in 1972 but never had won the sport's top title in what now is the Sprint Cup Series, thanked his employees, his organization's sponsors, Dodge Motorsports and especially his title-winning, ground-breaking driver, Brad Keselowski.

Penske's top-five finishers

1976Bobby Allison4
1993Rusty Wallace2
1994Rusty Wallace3
1995Rusty Wallace5
1998Rusty Wallace4
2009Kurt Busch4
2011Brad Keselowski5
2012Brad Keselowski1

He even gave a nod to all the owners and drivers who had tortured him by winning championship after championship after championship year after year after year until the decades piled up.

"This guy Keselowski is something special," a joyous Penske said in Victory Lane. "And for me, it's a lifelong goal when you think about [Rick] Hendrick, you think about [Dale] Earnhardt and [Richard] Childress and [Joe] Gibbs, just to mention some of the guys who have been up there at the top of our sport. We've been close, but we've never delivered. This guy here delivered it for us. Every week all through the year, he gave us this championship."

* Video: Penske on beating the best for his first title

That's not quite the way everyone else saw it. They all did it together, with their owner leading the way.

Keselowski recalled the day he visited Penske's gleaming, spacious race shop for the first time when he was just beginning to make headway in his NASCAR career. He felt almost awed, but he also saw enormous potential on the NASCAR side that had yet to be fully tapped at Penske Racing.

"When I walked through the shop, that was the moment I knew," Keselowski said in response to a question about when he sensed he could accomplish what all other Penske drivers before him could not. "I knew from that moment what level of commitment that Penske Racing had to the sport. All the pieces were there to be successful."

That included the owner.

"The fact that RP spent the time with me meant everything. He didn't have to talk to me. ... He had just won an Indy 500, and he didn't have to take the time to talk to me," Keselowski said.

* Video: Keselowski crowned champion | Sound Off

Penske not only talked to Keselowski, but also he had the wisdom to see championship potential in the raw, young driver and hired him. They embarked on a journey, now only in its third year, that also included a Nationwide Series championship for Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe in 2010.

Roger's title

Keselowski certainly was the tip of the spear that slew five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field in this 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Wolfe no doubt deserves enormous credit as well.

But this accomplishment was, as Penske Racing director of competition Travis Geisler insisted only 48 hours earlier, really all about Roger Penske.

"Obviously, it's very important to all of us to win a championship," Geisler had said. "There are a lot of us at Penske Racing who have never won one. But above and beyond all of our goals, it's Roger's championship that we're trying to get."

They secured it Sunday despite some tense moments during the Ford EcoBoost 400, when it looked as if Johnson was going to pull off a stunning championship comeback. It wasn't until he experienced a problem on pit road late in the race, and shortly thereafter suffered a fatal mechanical problem, that Keselowski knew his No. 2 Dodge had delivered Penske's elusive gift.

Penske's IndyCar teams had won 15 Indianapolis 500s and a total of 23 championships in other motorsports series prior to Sunday. But the title in NASCAR's top national touring series had always previously, almost inexplicably escaped his clutches.

"I'm real happy for him. He's paid his dues. He's won a bunch of other championships, and he's done a lot of hard work in this sport."


This time, though, he played all the right cards after at last being dealt a winning NASCAR hand.

"I guess when Jimmie lost that lug nut, I said someone gave us four aces right there in our hand. All we needed to do was make sure we didn't drop them," Penske said.

Hendrick homage

Even Hendrick, the team owner who fielded his first car in the Cup Series 12 years later than Penske but has won 10 series championships, offered heartfelt congratulations. Penske's championship came at the expense of what could have been Hendrick's 11th had Johnson, one of Hendrick's drivers who was Keselowski's closest Chase pursuer, not experienced all kinds of problems late in Sunday's race.

Although obviously disappointed to lose out on another title opportunity, Hendrick was genuinely happy for Penske. He even attended the post-race news conference wearing a hat featuring the logo of one of Penske's sponsors.

"He and I watched a race together not long ago when we were out of town," Hendrick said. "He's one of my best friends, and I wanted to congratulate him. He reached for my hat when I got to him and said, 'I want to wear that hat.' So I was happy to swap with him."

Why not? This was finally Roger's night. Whatever Roger wanted, he received.

"I respect him so much, and he is such a good friend," Hendrick said. "So I'm real happy for him. He's paid his dues. He's won a bunch of other championships, and he's done a lot of hard work in this sport."

Penske nearly won NASCAR's top championship a couple of times with Rusty Wallace. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman spent years trying to break through. But now the long wait is over. He finally can celebrate winning it all in a stock car.

There is one more thing left on his to-do list, though. He'll have to change the license plate on his personal car.

"It says INDY 1," Penske said. "I guess I need to put NASCAR 1 on it now. I guess that might be right."

Darn right, it is.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.