Jimmie Johnson was right.
All week he had tried to get under Brad Keselowski’s skin by pointing out all the little things – and some of the big things – that could go wrong to put potholes in the Penske Racing team’s seemingly easy road to the Sprint Cup championship. It didn’t seem to rattle Keselowski, but Johnson persevered.
As matters developed, those gremlins indeed showed up during the race. Trouble for Johnson was, they bit his team, not Keselowski’s.
And that was the supreme irony of Keselowski’s march into the NASCAR throne room Sunday night. The almost always perfect No. 48 team wilted, and Penske Racing’s steady challengers did not.
That was one of the things that stood out in crew chief Paul Wolfe’s head in the hours following the race.
“Just to be able to battle the 48 like we did, and we both won races in the Chase, we both had some races where we didn’t run well, but I think when you look at what they’ve been able to accomplish over the last whatever – 10 years, say, they’re definitely the best at this game,” Wolfe said. “I think that even makes it more special for me to know that we went head-to-head with those guys all the way down to the last race.”
Wolfe was part of the blaze of firsts that lit up Sunday night. A former Nationwide Series driver, he scored his first championship as a crew chief. It was Keselowski’s first title, and also the first for Roger Penske, a guy who had been waiting in the wings so long – 30 years – that one thought he might never make the final mile.
In the end, they were the Three Musketeers, all soaked in the beer and champagne of the perfect celebration. But it remains true that Keselowski and Penske are the Odd Couple, Penske the conservative white-shirt professional businessman and motorsports kingpin and Keselowski the punk kid who came in from the cold of Michigan to shake up the sport – and have a few beers.
It was an unlikely meeting four years ago when the still-scruffy Keselowski arrived at Penske Racing’s sprawling, glistening headquarters to talk to Penske about joining his team.
“I could feel all the pieces were there,” Keselowski said. “It was just a matter of kind of putting them in the right order, like this great big jigsaw puzzle. And I don’t think we have every piece perfect right now. I’ll be the first to tell you, and I imagine Roger would tell you that, too, but you knew they were there and you could make something out of it and the picture could be made clearer and you could be successful, and it was just a matter of time and commitment until it would be successful, and I felt like with the right time and commitment that we could do that.”
Penske gave Keselowski and Wolfe a lot of freedom – and filled out their wishlist of personnel and equipment – in their approach to racing for the championship, and the confidence paid off big.
“When he (Keselowski) took over the leadership of the team, I said to him, ‘You’re going to be the leader of this team,’ and I think that you’ve seen what’s happened,” Penske said. “He hasn’t missed a step. He’s galvanized the team from the standpoint of leadership with Paul and the whole team, and I think never does he miss a day coming in the shop, putting his arm around the guys, and that makes a big difference.
“You can be a big shot, but you’ve got to get down on the ground and work with the guys that are doing all this work day in and day out.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.