NASCAR: Keselowski, J.J. set to battle for Sprint Cup title; Stenhouse wins second straight Nationwide crown

Brad Keselowski just needs a 15th-place finish or better today at Homestead, Fla., to win his first Sprint Cup Championship.

Brad Keselowski just needs a 15th-place finish or better today at Homestead, Fla., to win his first Sprint Cup Championship.

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It had been a humbling 24 hours of championship racing for Roger Penske when he settled in for the plane ride back to Detroit.

His heart had been broken in California, where Will Power coughed away the IndyCar title by crashing out of the season finale. The disappointed team owner then made his way to Chicago for the opening race of NASCAR’s 10-race championship series, where Penske driver Brad Keselowski stole a surprise win over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

It was a tremendous emotional swing for Penske, who said to no one in particular on that flight home, “Well, we raced with the big boys today. And we won.”

“That really struck me when he said that, because Fontana was the lowest of the lows, a tough night,” said Walt Czarnecki, a Penske executive for more than 40 years. “To come back the next day and win Chicago with Brad, it was such a turning point for Roger. He was energized to race with the big boys, and to beat them. And to do it after losing Fontana with Will. It helped.”

Penske, the most successful team owner in open-wheel history, has little to show 40 years after entering NASCAR. Keselowski, the 28-year-old blue collar antiestablishment Michigan native, could change that for “The Captain” — just as he promised in a passionate speech to Penske four years ago.

Keselowski takes a 20-point lead over Johnson into Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where a finish of 15th or better will give Penske his first Sprint Cup title. It would have been his first ever NASCAR championship if Keselowski hadn’t won him a second-tier Nationwide title in 2010 — his first season with Penske Racing.

These are the trophies Keselowski vowed to deliver when he reached out to Penske in 2008.

He was driving for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and locked into a developmental deal with Hendrick Motorsports, but didn’t see a Cup ride opening anytime soon. So he asked Penske what he had available, even though Penske Racing wasn’t exactly the dream destination for NASCAR talent.

Penske has won 23 national championships in and 15 Indianapolis 500s, and his passion and his focus are usually directed on the open wheel part of the motorsports program. Although his NASCAR organization had 61 wins before Keselowski arrived, it only contended for a championship once — in 1993 when Rusty Wallace won 10 races and still finished second to Dale Earnhardt.

It’s a baffling hole in the resume of one of the most successful businessmen in America.

“Roger Penske is an unbelievable owner and person, and what’s surprising is he hasn’t won more championships, multiple championships,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said Saturday.

Rick Hendrick, winner of 10 Cup titles and owner of Johnson’s car, echoed the sentiment and almost sounded as if he’s rooting for Penske to finally win a title.

“I’ll be the first one in Victory Lane to congratulate him if I can’t win it,” Hendrick said. “He’s one of my best friends. I respect him. I think the world of him and his family and he just does a remarkable job at everything whether it’s racing or the automobile business. He’s just a hero of mine.

“And I don’t know why he hasn’t won yet, but I do know I don’t run over in IndyCar, but if I did, I’d be spanked by him.”

In fairness, Penske was out of NASCAR from 1981 until 1991, and Czarnecki said they discovered “the sport had clearly changed” upon their return. And Penske himself has admitted that NASCAR wasn’t always a priority to him.

“This hasn’t been our main focus. Many of the teams running in NASCAR haven’t had the responsibility of the IndyCar side, too,” Penske said. “We’ve run the Porsche cars and the long-distance racing. But I think our focus today, we’ve emerged as a competitor. We’ve been good in the past, but we’ve never been able to close the deal. Hopefully that will be a different case this year.”

It can be traced to Keselowski, who demands more of Penske’s time and energy simply by being himself. He’s relentless in his passion and enthusiasm for winning and wanting to turn Penske Racing into an elite NASCAR organization, and he presented Penske with a list of things he and crew chief Paul Wolfe believed were needed for the team to be better.

“They provide me with a list of the things that they feel we can make the team better and the car better, to the point Brad thought we should upgrade our fitness center,” Penske said. “Nothing to do with racing, but the team, human capital.”

Keselowski, a constant texter and tweeter, keeps the 75-year-old Penske busy on his phone. Texting. Texting. Texting. Constantly engaging with the race team.

“To win a championship for Roger would certainly be a huge accomplishment considering everything he’s been through in American motorsports and beyond,” Keselowski said. “You look at his legacy in the sport and you can’t help but feel that he’s been a little bit slighted on the NASCAR side. We’d like to get that job done, and I think we have the opportunity to do it.”

Those who have been with Penske from the beginning see similarities in the relationship between owner and driver to the one Penske had with Rick Mears, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and current Penske driver coach and consultant.

“Roger was so impressed with Rick as a person starting from the very beginning, they just clicked,” said Dan Luginbuhl, Penske’s vice president, emeritus. “You need people that are dedicated, that are 110 percent all-in. Rick Mears was one of those people, and I suspect Brad Keselowski is one of those people.”

Penske is one of those people. His motto for all of his companies is “effort equals results,” and it’s not lip service, either. The race track is his weekend golf game, and figuring out how to get to Victory Lane is his recreation.

“Nobody is working harder throughout the company than my father and people see that,” son Greg Penske said. “I think the culture he has set of doing things only one way, and that’s the right way, that’s how we operate our businesses. People see that and they understand when they wear our logo and wear the Penske brand, it means quality and it means performance. He’s built that, and when people see him work hard, it makes you want to work hard.

“That’s been instilled in all of his children and all of his employees: You work hard to get ahead. That’s the message he teaches.”

Now all the hard work, all the effort put into 1,396 entries dating to 1972, will be rewarded Sunday barring some bizarre setback. It can happen, though, and it did two months ago to Power at Fontana. But should the “Blue Deuce” team follow the Penske plan and fill that void on the impressive Penske resume, the team owner won’t want his employees thinking it’s about him.

“Sure, it will be wonderful for him, but it will be more of a statement about the building of an organization,” Czarnecki said. “Roger gets as much enjoyment out of seeing the people who contributed enjoy the fruits of what they’ve done. It’s not about him. His success is built on his humanity. Roger doesn’t hold himself up over anyone else in the organization.”

“He respects people, whether it’s the guy sweeping the floor or the bank president. He’s able to extract performance from people that way.”

Stenhouse Jr. wins 2nd straight Nationwide title

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. left little doubt that he’s ready for a promotion.

Stenhouse became the sixth driver to win consecutive championships in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. He finished sixth Saturday in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, edging Elliott Sadler for the title.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort into this and I’m just the lucky guy who gets to drive it,” said Stenhouse, who is replacing Matt Kenseth in the Sprint Cup Series next season at Roush Fenway Racing.

Stenhouse finished his final Nationwide season with six wins.

About the only drama in the finale was whether he would play it safe. He did, but not without a few close calls. His spotter even had to remind him several times over the final 10 laps to avoid potential pitfalls.

Stenhouse eventually obliged, but only after he held the push-to-talk button down on his steering wheel to drown out all the chatter in his helmet.

“I don’t ride around,” Stenhouse said. “That’s not how we got in this position.”

Regan Smith won the 300-mile race, his first victory in 103 Nationwide starts. He was making his first start since 2007, and he’s going to race for the championship next season for JR Motorsports. This was his debut race with that team, which is co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and had not won a race since 2010.

“These guys worked hard all year long, and we’re going to do the same next year and contend for a championship,” Smith said. “That’s our plan. Hopefully, tonight was part of a statement right there.”

Kyle Busch was second, followed by Brendan Gaughan, Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon. Danica Patrick was 19th in her final Nationwide race before moving to the Sprint Cup Series full time. She finished 10th in points, becoming the highest-finishing female driver in the history of NASCAR’s three national series. The previous record was held by Sara Christian, who finished 13th in 1949 in the Cup series.

Busch dominated the race early, but couldn’t get past Smith in the closing laps.

A year after winning 18 races across NASCAR’s three national series, Busch went winless in Nationwide and Trucks in 2012. He was 0 for 22 in Nationwide, finishing winless for the first time since his 2003 debut year.

In Sprint Cup, Busch has just one victory headed into Sunday’s season finale.

“I think it’s been well documented that this has been the absolute worst year of my career, bar none, whether it was racing ASA cars or late models or Legends cars or even being here in the big three,” Busch said. “It’s a huge disappointment. … I can’t seem to put it all together when it matters, and you have to in this sport, otherwise you’ll be kind of shown the door.”

Smith did some smoky burnouts, then headed to Victory Lane. Joey Logano also celebrated after clinching the series owners title for Joe Gibbs Racing. It was the fourth owners title for the former Washington Redskins football coach, who matched the previous series record held by Richard Childress.

Stenhouse and his crew, though, enjoyed a more significant moment.

Stenhouse became the first since Martin Truex Jr. in 2005 to win back-to-back titles in the developmental series. Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy LaJoie (1996-97) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-98) also accomplished the feat.

Stenhouse started the finale fourth and had a 20-point lead over Elliott. He needed to finish 16th or better to clinch another trophy.

The lead would have been considerably tighter had Sadler not wrecked last week at Phoenix.

But Sadler triggered a three-car accident that brought the race to a halt and essentially ruined his championship hopes. It was reminiscent of last year, when Sadler also finished second to Stenhouse after some late-season setbacks.

“It’s way more disappointing this year because we had control of the points the whole entire season,” Sadler said. “We raced as hard as we could every weekend, but we came up short. Didn’t take but a few races to put us behind. … Second is not what we wanted, but we ran competitive all year long.”