Penske’s Quick Start Signals Move To The Top Tier
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
For those who followed open-wheel and sports car racing, Roger Penske’s fortunes as a team owner in NASCAR were tough to comprehend.
The man who had spun gold in racing series which depended upon major amounts of high technology and demanded time-piece precision, couldn’t consistently fit together championship pieces in the relatively analog world of stock cars.
It was a go-figure situation.
Technically, it ended, of course, with Brad Keselowski’s 2012 championship campaign. But even that had some people wondering if the championship was merely a fit that would precede yet another start. It just didn’t convince skeptics that Team Penske was ready to join The Club.
Now, one season and three races from the day that Brad Keselowski chugged beer from an absurdly oversized lager glass as a bulgy-eyed Brian France looked on in Victory Lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the skeptics’ questions have been answered: Welcome to The Club.
This said not despite of Team Penske’s downturn of fortune last season, but because of it. More specifically, the way the man and the team have dealt with it.
Roger Penske’s place in American auto racing history smacks you in the face hardest, perhaps, with an analytical tour through his museum in Scottsdale, Ariz.
There you’ll see living history of “The Captain’s” impact. You’ll see the legendary machinery: the PC1 Formula One car; the Mercedes pushrod-powered “Penske Panzers” that won Indy in the mid-1990s; the Porsche RS Spyder P2 car which beat the P1s; the “spin-and-win” Indy car of Danny Sullivan; Mark Donohue’s IROC winning 911.
You’ll see the trophies, driver portraits and artifacts that Penske has accumulated on his way to becoming an unparalleled American auto racing figure.
There is also a NASCAR presence in the museum. But it carries neither the significance nor the wow of the non-NASCAR presence.
It isn’t because Penske’s NASCAR teams haven’t had their moments and their stars and their cars. Heading into the 2012 season, Penske-owned cars won 68 races over parts of four decades. Many of those wins were logged with Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace at the wheel. And many of the Penske Cup cars also possessed significant bling: There was the Blue Deuce, the gold Miller car and, of course, the red, white and blue AMC Matador.
It’s just that Penske’s NASCAR presence in the museum lacks pop because it’s surrounded by the iconic overload with which it shares the building.
Penske, apparently, was very aware of it all.
In 2008, Penske scored a NASCAR biggie when Ryan Newman gave him his first Daytona 500 victory. At the traditional winner’s breakfast at Daytona International Speedway’s museum the morning after, a couple of us converged on Penske for questions. Penske was Penske. Cool, composed and with the absolutely perfect amount of joy about the victory the day before.
But there were also a couple references to Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and other owners who had won multiple Cup championships. References that appeared to betray the fact that The Captain really, really, really wanted to win a Cup championship.
During a telephone chat with RacinToday.com this week, Walt Czarnecki, Penske’s right-hand man and 40-plus year confidant of Penske, indicated just what a Cup championship meant in the Team Penske camp when it would finally come in 2012.
“If you walked into my office in Michigan, you would see a 4-foot by 6-foot photo of Victory Lane (at Homestead-Miami Speedway after Keselowski clinch the 2012 championship there),” Czarnecki said. “I still get emotional when I look at it. I think maybe it was the biggest thing to happen to Penske Racing. I think Roger feels the same way.”
While the goal of winning a Cup championship had been in place since the early ’70s for Penske, The Captain and his people stepped the effort up to necessary levels in the mid 2000s.
Penske had decided to consolidate all his racing operations – NASCAR, IndyCar and sports cars – onto one campus. He also made it a point to stress the number one.
“There is only one Team Penske,” Czarnecki, the the executive vice president of Penske Corp. and vice chairman of Penske Racing, said of the decision to consolidate. “We’ve got this tremendous reservoir of resources, of both intellectual capital and human capital. Why couldn’t we draw all of those resources together to the benefit of all our racing efforts despite the discipline? If you visit the shop down here, there are no physical walls and there are no intellectual walls.”
Work was completed on an abandoned factory Penske had bought and turned into a mega state-of-the-art race shop in Mooresville in 2007. The new shop contained over 400,000 square feet of work space.
It also contained Tim Cindric, the engineering mind who had run Penske’s IndyCar teams for all of the 21st Century. Cindric jumped into the NASCAR side and slowly became a major asset to the NASCAR teams.
In the five years after consolidation, Penske also made several key driver changes.
Keselowski was brought in to help fill a hole left by Newman’s departure to Stewart-Haas Racing.
In early September of 2012, Penske announced that he had hired Joey Logano to drive the No. 22 car beginning in 2013.
The Logano hire, as with Keselowski’s, appeared to be a risky one.
Though still just 22 years old at the time, Logano’s Cup career was viewed as a bit of a disappointment. During his four-plus seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, Logaon couldn’t live up to the hype which had been fitted for him as a teen-ager. In addition, Logano was given the job over Sam Hornish Jr., a journeyman who had won the Indy 500 for Penske and three IndyCar championships as a youngster for Panther Racing.
What Penske and Czarnecki saw was a still-young driver who was loaded with talent that had just not been coaxed outward.
“We saw the same things in Joey that (Joe and J.D. Gibbs) saw,” Czarnecki said. “I think by coming to our team, as last year demonstrated, he was able to flourish. We made it clear to Joey when he came to our team that there is no No. 1 driver and no No. 2 driver. Everybody is the same. Everybody has the same equipment and everybody has the same right to constructively criticize and help and contribute and support. We’ve seen Joey mature as a driver and as a person.”
In March of 2012, Penske, who had put two drivers into the Chase the season before (Keselowski and Kurt Busch), stunned NASCAR Nation by announcing he was moving from Dodge to Ford for the 2013 season.
Eight months after the announcement, and after winning the championship with Keselowski, Penske never second-guessed the decision.
“This wasn’t about money,” Penske had said in March when he announced the move. “When you look at the strength of the multiple-car teams, we needed to have a benchmark.”
The 2013 season appeared to represent a step back for Team Penske as Keselowski failed to make the Chase and Logano looked merely good – he won a race, snuck into the Chase and did well enough in the 13-driver playoff to finish eighth.
“We’ve said it publicly that we thought our effort last year was maybe a B-minus,” Czarnecki said. “Brad not making the Chase was a disappointment for everybody.”
The 2013 season was one of massive change – in NASCAR with the move to Gen 6 cars, and at Penske. Penske talked about that last Sunday afternoon – after Keselowski won at Las Vegas and Logano finished fourth for the second time in the three-race old season.
“I think that obviously there were a lot of things that changed last year,” Penske said. “New manufacturer, new motors, new reliability. We had to get our cars right. We had some reliability problems from a heating situation which I’d have to say was ours. But it was tough, and we got wrecked a couple times that didn’t help us.”
But the 2013 season did not detract from Penske’s entry into the top tier. It enhanced it because Team Penske did what all great organizations do after times of disappointment: The team gathered together after Homestead and regrouped.
“We sat down and determined the areas we did well and where we needed to improve in the off season,” Czarnecki said. “The product and the process was refined in the off season.”
There was also, he said, refinement occurring under Keselowski’s helmet as a result of 2013.
“I think Brad matured,” Penske said. “I think you’ve seen his MO this year. He’s certainly focused. You have to have a little bit of adversity before you get better, and I think that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski.”
Through the first three races of 2014, Team Penske’s rebound has been story No. 1. in Sprint Cup. Keselowski has the one victory he got at Las Vegas last weekend. Keselowski and Logano each have a pole – Keselowski at Phoenix in Week 2 and Logano at Las Vegas.
In addition, both drivers have led laps in all three races and have been among the fastest in practice sessions at the three tracks. Keselowski has three podium finishes and Logano two top-four finishes.
That is, Penske’s drivers have proved themselves on plate and intermediate tracks this year and this weekend will add a short track – Bristol – to the list.
When racers talk about the teams of Rick Hendrick – the pre-eminent NASCAR team owner of the last 20 years – they always get around to his ability to deal with change and to bounce back from setbacks. They’ve talk about those things when they’ve discussed Penske as an Indy car-team owner for an entire generation.
Now, they can talk about it as a Cup-team owner.
The opinion here is that Penske has earned top tier status on the list of NASCAR team owners.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.com Comments