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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Penske on Keselowski & the 2012 season

by Gordon Kirby
Roger Penske seems particularly pleased to finally win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship after more than twenty years of trying. It turned out to be the most elusive goal of Penske's celebrated career in racing and there's no doubt it's even more satisfying to do it with Brad Keselowski, NASCAR's most exciting new star.

"It was a good day for us, well deserved," Penske says. "I think our guys did just a terrific job. That's tough competition, as you well know, and Keselowski is terrific. He's the kind of kid who worked on his race cars and slept on the back seat of the truck on the way to the track. That's where the raw talent comes from you see today in some of these kids who are so good."

Keselowski is a third-generation racer from Rochester Hills in southern Michigan, just outside Detroit. His grandfather John raced motorcycles and cars, working on them in the garage behind the family's house. Brad's father Bob started racing when he was six, eventually winning the ARCA championship in 1989.

Brad worked on his dad's cars and used his mathematical skills to help set-up and engineer them. He started racing when he was 14 in quarter midgets before moving up through local stock cars and Late Models. In 2004 he moved into NASCAR's Truck series with the family team and ran the full schedule in '05 before the operation ran into serious money trouble early in 2006.

© Autostock
The Keselowski family had to sell their race shop and assets, but as they struggled financially Brad's career began to take off and in the last few years he's been able to pay off the family's debts. Dale Earnhardt Jr recognized Keselowki's ability and hired him in 2008 to drive a JR Motorsports car in the Nationwide series. Keselowski also ran two Sprint Cup races in a Hendrick car in '08 and the following year he finished third in Nationwide points with JR Motorsports and scored his first Cup victory at Talladega driving James Finch's car as well as running seven Cup races for Hendrick.

Meanwhile, Penske had been winning races but not championships with the likes of Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch. Roger says he wasn't unhappy with the situation but woke up one day with a fresh view.

"We were very comfortable with Rusty and Newman," Penske recalls. "We really weren't looking for drivers, where Roush and some of the other teams were generating younger drivers. Then I woke up one day and said, 'We better get some young guys in this team.'

"So I started to watch some of the younger guys in the Nationwide Series. We weren't competing in that series at that point and I saw Brad when he was driving for Earnhardt Jr's team. That brought a lot of attention to him and he had success in that car.

"So I contacted him and we talked about what his future was going to be when he was available. He had a commitment at that point to JR Motorsports and to Hendrick and he said to me, 'Roger, I'd really like to get together with you at some point. Let's build a championship team.'

"Well, guess what? A year later Hendrick or JR didn't have a full-time Nationwide and Cup ride for him so we offered him a full-time program in both series and he came with us. That was really the start."

In 2010, Keselowski ran both the Cup and Nationwide series and won the Nationwide championship, taking Penske's first NASCAR title.

© Paul Webb
"We got Paul Wolfe on board and we put the team together and he won the Nationwide championship in the first year," Penske says. "We weren't that successful on the Cup side but he was getting his feet on the ground with us and we were starting to build the team. Then we moved Paul up to the Cup team last year and Brad just took off like a rocket."

Keselowski continued to run both series the past two years and became Penske's number one NASCAR driver at the end of last year when Penske parted ways with Kurt Busch and Keselowski moved into the #2 Miller car. Penske was particularly impressed with how Keselowski bounced back from a big accident in the middle of last year during testing at Road Atlanta.

"That was a bad accident and it was very tough on him but he showed his strength and commitment following that accident and he's never looked back. He's just been a superstar for us. He's won eight races and been in the Chase each year and his commitment to the team is what won us this year's championship."

Penske is impressed with Keselowski's ability to maintain a keen assessment of himself and keep his ego in check.

"He's a total team player. I remember a comment he made to me at one point. 'I'm not good enough to be able to help Kurt Busch. I've got to get better in order to help him.' So it's interesting how he rated himself along the way."

Of course, Penske's NASCAR's team is switching to Ford next year after ten years with Dodge.

"It's bittersweet," he remarks. "We were with Ford ten years ago and switched to Dodge and we stayed with Dodge for ten years. The fact that we were able to announce this earlier in the year was good for us and it made some people think it was going to be a lame duck year. But I can tell you the Dodge people put extra effort in with people and technical support that really helped us get to the finish line."

Penske says he believes there's a chance Dodge could return to NASCAR in 2014.

"I hope this championship will give Dodge's senior management a chance to take a look at NASCAR and see about getting back in with both feet in 2014. Obviously, the move to Ford is exciting. It will give us a world class top team to benchmark against which, as I've said from the beginning, will be important to us. There are a number of Chevrolet and Toyota teams and this will give us a chance to partner with Roush and Yates as we go forward next year."

Meanwhile, Penske's engine shop in North Carolina remains in business.

"We're going to keep the engine shop operating," he says. "We've got some work to do on other programs and other engines. We're going through that process now of how we organize for that work and which people will be needed where."

Penske's success with Keselowski in NASCAR has overshadowed that of his IndyCar team which hasn't won a championship since 2006. In fact, in the last three years the team lost the championship at the season finale.

"The last three years in a row really, we've had trouble at the last race," Penske observes. "Briscoe got in that accident at Motegi three years ago and then Will's had accidents the last two years. It's a shame it's happened that way, but it's made us tougher. We're still a great team and we're going to keep going and try to win more championships in IndyCar."

At this stage Penske is committed to running just two Indy cars in 2013 for Will Power and Helio Castroneves. He's still trying to put together the sponsorship for Ryan Briscoe's third car.

"We haven't made that decision. We're running two for sure for Will and Helio. We're still trying to get the sponsorship for Briscoe. We're not going to go into a season not funded properly, that's for sure."

The IndyCar championship may have slipped from his team's grasp but Penske takes pleasure in Chevrolet winning IndyCar's manufacturers championship. He was of course, a key player in pulling together the Chevrolet/ilmor combination.

"The Chevrolet engine program could not be working any better," Penske added. "General Motors and Ilmor have really done a good job together and the outcome this year has been terrific."

The beat goes on for Roger Penske and his race teams. Number one in NASCAR, a close number two in IndyCar, and a wider record of wins and championships than any other team in the sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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