Thursday, November 15, 2012

Penske more than just a first-rate owner

Roger Penske has done a lot of winning in his storied career as a race car owner. Most notably, Penske's drivers have won 12 titles in the IndyCar Series, where he and his drivers have dominated at times. Penske just missed winning the IndyCar title this year as it came down to the final race in Fontana, Calif. While winning that title would not have been unusual for the 75-year old Penske, it would have made what might happen this weekend all the more remarkable.
If Penske driver Brad Keselowski holds on to his 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and does capture the Sprint Cup crown Sunday, it will give Penske his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title. And if Penske IndyCar driver Will Power had won the title in September, Penske would have won two titles in the same year.
But Penske is not only the leader of remarkable teams on the track, he also a leads significant happenings off the track.
It was last month when the Driving Away Cold Program donated coats to Philadelphia area organizations based on how many cars auto dealer sold. One of those dealers involved was the Penske Group from Reading, Pa. Being part of the coat drive was a good thing to do, but not something highly unusual. However, one of the men at the Community YMCA of Eastern Delaware County in Upper Darby, Pa., in mid-October helping unload those coats was David Penske, Roger Penske's brother. He didn't hang around to be interviewed, and was not seeking extra attention to let the world know how great the Penske organization is. In fact, he was trying to avoid it. Not because he was being uncooperative, but simply because there was the next delivery to make and there was work to do. He wasn't looking for credit.

A little while later, after asking a few questions about the Penskes to a public relations representative for the program, I found that the truck used to deliver the coats was donated by Penske. And also, that the Penskes had been very helpful to the entire program.
That's one of those classy type of acts that often go unnoticed, but as is often the case life, an indication of a true winner.
That Penske hasn't been a Sprint Cup title winner sooner is a bit of a surprise. He came close with Rusty Wallace in 1993, when Wallace won 10 races and finished second, and then finished third the following year. But he hasn't been that close for a while ... until now.

The reason it's a surprise Penske hasn't won that Sprint Cup title is because he leads an organization that works to do everything first class. To put Penske's ownership career in perspective, he was viewed by many in IndyCar the way owner Rick Hendrick is viewed by many in NASCAR today. Penske's team was the place to go if you wanted to win the Indy 500 and win the IndyCar championship.
While Penske's teams got off to a good start when he re-entered NASCAR in 1992, it's been a bit of a struggle at times, with hints of success.
Penske is all about doing the right thing all the time. But he without question took a bit of risk after hiring the brash Brad Keselowski to be his driver three years ago. Keselowski delivered Penske his only NASCAR title by taking the Nationwide crown in 2010. And after making the Chase last year, Keselowski clearly set his sights on winning the title this year.
It's been a maturation process for Keselowski, who at times in years past took to wrecking other drivers if they were in slower cars. But he's realized that creates more problems than it solves.
And some of that maturation has had to come from Penske, whose adept at solving problems.
One of the team's biggest issues this year was being the final Dodge team in Sprint Cup and announced it was moving to Ford beginning next year. But what about this year? Penske has somehow managed to continue a quality relationship with Dodge, which announced earlier in the fall that it would not be fielding a team in 2013.
It could be the second ironic situation in two years for the Sprint Cup champion. Last year, Tony Stewart bid adieu to crew chief Darian Grubb after winning the title. This year Penske will be doing the same with Dodge.
You can be sure Penske has done a lot of work behind the scenes to keep a strong working relationship with the Dodge. Once again, not seeking attention, just seeking victory.

We've hit race No. 36 overall, and race No. 10 in the Chase as NASCAR finishes another season at Miami-Homestead. It will be hard for NASCAR to top the drama it had last year at Miami when Tony Stewart needed a victory to capture the title, then went out and won. It will be next to impossible to match the drama from last week, with then points leader Jimmie Johnson crashing, Jeff Gordon extracting revenge on Clint Bowyer in the form a causing a crash and eventually a pit crew fight, and a last lap finish that became wild when Danica Patrick's car lost oil in the fourth turn with NASCAR not throwing a yellow flag.
Keselowski heads into Miami with a 20-point lead over Johnson and needs only a 15th-place finish for a guarantee of the title. Keselowski's first goal, contrary to what his instincts will want it to be, is to stay out of trouble. He'll also be protecting tires, to try and avoid what happened to Johnson last week.
Unless an accident or mechanical issue sidelines Keselowski early, Johnson will be going all out for the win.
So with that in mind, here's a look at our final picks of the season:
1. Jimmie Johnson. His past history at Miami is a bit deceiving because during his run of five straight titles, he often was in control of the points race and was just looking to stay out of trouble, taking few risks. That won't be the case this Sunday as he knows he'll need to win for any shot to catch Keselowski.
2. Brad Keselowski. He'll be in protection mode, but I'm picking him anyway. He's only led 11 laps in eight races at Miami, but he's been breaking those trends in this Chase and it may well continue here.
3. Carl Edwards. If there's any place that he can break his 68-race losing streak it's at Miami. He has two wins in eight races at Miami and has led 560 laps.
4. Tony Stewart. He ended last season at Miami with a win, and just like Edwards, Miami has been one of his best tracks. In 13 races there he has three wins and has led 450 laps.
5. Matt Kenseth. This will be his final race with the only organization he has ever known, and Miami has also been a good track for him. He has one win there and has led 303 laps in 12 races. He'd love to finish his Roush-Fenway time with one more win before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Just for fun, wouldn't it be interesting to see Gordon leading this race on the final lap, with Bowyer on his bumper. Do we really need to ask what the outcome might be?
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 9 of the Chase at Phoenix.
Jimmie Johnson  - 32nd.  He was looking at a top 10 finish before his right-front tire blew, causing him to go to the garage for repairs, leaving him over 30 laps down.
Brad Keselowski  - 6th.  He was a contender to win for a while, but once Johnson went out, it was clear that he was looking for a good finish and to stay out of trouble.
Denny Hamlin  - 2nd. He also was in contention much of the day and had a nice rebound after a disappointing finish in Texas the week before.
Tony Stewart  - 19th. He was trying to battle for a top 10 finish when a spin put him a lap down.
Kyle Busch - 3rd. He had the dominating car for most of the day, but for some reason chose the inside lane on a late restart when the outside lane had been working well all day for restarts. He led the most laps at 237 and it was the eighth straight time when he has led the most laps in a race and not won.
Here's a look at my results after 35 races and 175 picks.
17 wins
56 top 5s
84 top 10s
Grade for the week: B-. No winner this time, even though Busch should have won it. Still two of the top five and three of the top six isn't too bad a day.
One last thing: Ryan Newman has not started from the pole this year, putting at risk his streak of 11 straight seasons of winning at least one pole position. Newman has not started from the pole in any of his 10 races at Miami.

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