Roger Penske’s NASCAR career can be easily divided into two quite unequal parts.
The man who eventually would dominate open-wheel racing in America arrived in NASCAR in 1972, bringing with him one of auto racing’s all-time great drivers – Mark Donohue. Donohue raced a Penske Matador at Riverside International Raceway in 1972 to mark Penske’s arrival in major-league stock car racing. Traditional stock-car drivers Dave Marcis and Donnie Allison also would race Penske cars that season.
Penske tried the sport in fits and starts for the next eight years, departing NASCAR in 1980 with six victories (four scored by Bobby Allison in 1975) but having hardly made a dent in the Cup series’ infrastructure. The 1976 season (with Bobby Allison) marked his only full-time run during that stretch, so it’s a bit unfair to judge how his “Southern division” might have performed with more races and more experience.
The bottom line, however, was that Penske, considered somewhat of an invader by series regulars who often didn’t appreciate the successes of open-wheel racers, couldn’t get access to the top floors of NASCAR.
He was absent from NASCAR for a decade, deciding to return in 1991 with driver Rusty Wallace. The sport didn’t exactly shiver with fear. One prominent car owner said, “We ran Penske out of here one time. We can do it again.”
Penske Part II, however, would meet with much more success. While he was stacking up championships (12) and Indianapolis 500 wins (15) on the open-wheel side, his stock car racing expertise grew with Wallace at the helm. Wallace won 10 races in 1993 and finished second in points to Dale Earnhardt Sr., who won his sixth title.
Despite the gains, Penske remained the kid outside the candy store in discussions about the Sprint Cup championship. Ryan Newman scored Penske Racing’s first Daytona 500 win in 2008, but the spot in the trophy case for the Big Trophy remained vacant.
The big change came three years ago, unlikely as it might have seemed at the time, with the arrival of a fellow Michigander, Brad Keselowski. He convinced Penske that he was the guy to help build a NASCAR championship team at Penske’s massive Mooresville, N.C., shop.
The payoff will arrive Friday night as Keselowski and Penske celebrate their first title at the Sprint Cup Series’ Awards banquet in Las Vegas.
“It's not how much money you put into your race team – it's all about the people and the human capital, and I guess Brad is right at the top,” Penske said. “When he came in and said, ‘Look, I want to help you build a championship team,’ he looked me in the eye and shook my hand, and that's how we started, and there's no question that he's delivered way above what both of us probably thought was possible when you look at the competition and what we have to deal with.”
Penske said he sees similarities between Donohue, his first NASCAR entry, and Keselowski, the driver who finally delivered the championship.
“I remember many nights Mark Donohue would work all night in the shop and get in the truck and tow the car to the races, and that's the kind of background that Brad had with his dad and his brother and uncle and what have you, and I think that Brad has become a technician,” Penske said. “I mean, he's smart, he's engineering savvy.”
Friday night, Keselowski completes Part II of Penske’s NASCAR adventure as he accepts the biggest trophy of all.
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.