FORTUNES TURN FAST in racing. Roger Penske knows that well.
In an emotional 24-hour span, his bid to win the IndyCar championship came up just short — again — when points leader Will Power crashed early in the season finale. It made Penske a runner-up in the IndyCar final standings for a third consecutive year, and the fourth time since Penske Racing’s last title in 2006.
Penske left California disappointed, but not defeated. He was rewarded the next day when Brad Keselowski won NASCAR’s opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
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“I guess the first thing is that after last night at California Speedway, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came here,” Penske said after Keselowski’s win on Sunday. “It’s a great day for us. It cools me down a little bit after being hot last night.”
Keselowski’s win at Chicagoland made the third-year Penske driver the Sprint Cup points leader for the first time in his career, and reaffirmed that The Captain may actually have a shot at a NASCAR championship this year.
It’s the one crown that has eluded Penske, one of the most successful team owners in history. He has 15 Indianapolis 500 wins and 12 open-wheel championships. But in 29 years in NASCAR, Penske has never claimed the spot on the stage at the end of the season.
He tried for 15 years with Rusty Wallace, who built a Hall of Fame career driving for Penske. But not even a 10-win season in 1993 could get Penske that title; Wallace wound up second to Dale Earnhardt in the final standings.
Then along came Keselowski, who was unapologetic about his brash driving style or his big mouth. He says what he believes, races to win and doesn’t let much stand in his way.
So even though he had a good gig in the Hendrick Motorsports pipeline, waiting in the wings for an open seat at NASCAR’s top organization wasn’t good enough for Keselowski. He decided he wanted to go somewhere else, and help another organization reach to the top.
He decided the best fit was Penske, where both driver and owner could reach their goals together.
Penske recalled speaking to Keselowski about a potential partnership when Keselowski was still under contract to Hendrick.
“He came by to see us and he said that he’d like to come and race for our team. But he couldn’t do it, he had a commitment,” Penske said. “But he said, `When I do come, I want to help build a team to win the championship.’ I think he’s never forgotten that.”
Keselowski’s desire has clearly resonated with Penske, who had created a perception that NASCAR was secondary to his open-wheel passion. He spends most of his time in IndyCar, where he was the race strategist for Ryan Briscoe this season. So when both series race on the same day, Penske is always with his open-wheel teams.
Patrick’s crew chief fired
JR Motorsports parted ways with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., 10 days after his father was ousted as competition director.
Eury Jr. was crew chief for Danica Patrick and is a partial owner of the Nationwide Series team.
“I had hoped he would be here for a long time, but as we’ve discussed the direction of JR Motorsports moving forward, it was clear our differences in ideas were too vast to overcome,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of four owners of the race team.
Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. are cousins, and Eury Jr. was his crew chief for many years at the Sprint Cup level.
Earnhardt said no decision has been made as to who will crew chief Patrick this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.