While the lion’s share of the attention in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series understandably was focused on champion Brad Keselowski, the triumph might have been even bigger for car owner Roger Penske.
Despite his phenomenal record of success, which prior to 2012 included 23 open-wheel and sports-car series championships and 15 Indianapolis 500 victories, NASCAR has been a considerably tougher nut to crack for the man known as “The Captain.”
While Rusty Wallace won 10 races and finished second to Dale Earnhardt for the Sprint Cup championship in 1993, Penske Racing failed to win any titles in NASCAR until 2010, when Keselowski raced his way to a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship.
This year, though, it all came good in NASCAR’s top division, with Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe forming a dynamic duo. Keselowski and Wolfe are so strong because they combine the driver’s brashness and aggression with the crew chief’s cool, strategic approach to racing. When the dust settled, Keselowski had five race victories and his first championship in just his third full season in Sprint Cup racing.
And Penske finally earned the title he coveted so much and worked so hard to get.
“I feel amazing that I've been able to achieve this in racing,” said Penske after Keselowski clinched at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I've lauded the people that have been on that stage for so many years in Las Vegas and New York, and to be able to join this elite group and say that I'm a champion in NASCAR means a lot.”
Given that it took 40 years since Penske ran its first Sprint Cup race — an AMC Matador for Mark Donohue at Riverside in 1972 — to finally seal the deal, winning was a huge deal for the team owner.
“I think it took the guts for me to stay in the sport,” Penske said. “We could have thought, ‘Well, we won the Indy 500 15 times and we're a big deal,’ but I'll tell you one thing: Until you get here and you compete at the top and win it, you really know what's happened, and I think I just woke up here tonight, and it's a big thrill.”
The significance of the championship was not lost on Keselowski.
“Winning it for Roger is much sweeter … because I know this is an accomplishment nobody else has ever done,” Keselowski said.
While the Sprint Cup championship obviously was the big news at Penske this year, it was far from the only news. And Penske himself had to make some hard decisions to position the team competitively for the future.
In November 2011, Kurt Busch left Penske after the final in a very public series of temper explosions, to be replaced in the cockpit of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge by AJ Allmendinger.
But Allmendinger made it just 17 races before he failed a random drug test and was suspended by NASCAR. Penske filled Allmendinger’s seat for the balance of 2012 with veteran Sam Hornish Jr., who had a best finish of fifth at Watkins Glen.
For 2013, Penske signed Joey Logano away from Joe Gibbs Racing to take over the No. 22 on a full-time basis, with Hornish set to run for the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship with Penkse.
More significantly, perhaps, Penske negotiated a deal for his team to move from Dodge back to Ford, using Roush Yates engines, instead of the in-house engine program Penske used with Dodge. It will be a big change for the team.
On the other hand, with all teams switching to the new Generation 6 Cup cars in 2013, it was as good a time as any to change manufacturers.
Oh, and if you want some idea of how smart a businessman Penske is, he signed Keselowski to a multi-year contract extension — before the 2012 season even started.
Look for Penske to stay strong in NASCAR for a very long time.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.