TORONTO - Roger Penske could have been forgiven if he had not been at Chicagoland Speedway Sunday afternoon to see Brad Keselowski win the first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
After all he had been at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., until the wee hours the day before, mourning the loss of the IZOD IndyCar Series championship when his driver Will Power crashed on Lap 55 of a 250 lap race.
There is also the perception that Penske’s involvement in NASCAR is just about making money and that his real love is open-wheel racing.
A billionaire who has built his transportation business into a world wide colossus, Penske made it clear, however, that he was going to be at Chicagoland regardless of what had happened the night before in California.
Simply, because Keselowski — this whippet of a race car driver — had demanded he be there.
“I was planning to come, win or lose (at Fontana),” Penske said. “He (Keselowski) expects me here.”
He boarded his private jet at John Wayne Airport on the outskirts of Los Angeles well after midnight and flew to Chicago, landing about two hours before the start of the NASCAR race.
It is the kind of commitment that goes far beyond the normal team owner/driver relationship in big time racing.
You can tell right off that Penske is very fond of the 28-year-old Keselowski.
There isn’t a race car driver anywhere on the planet who hasn’t at one time or other wanted to be part of Penske’s operation, but the Captain, as Penske is known, talks readily not about how he has put together a first class NASCAR team but what Keselowski has brought to the table.
“He has brought a lot to the team,” Penske said after Sunday’s race. “He has been an amazing young guy. He’s a very constructive driver from the standpoint of our people within the company.
“We had a lunch this past Monday. Brad just — he revs the whole team up, and he goes around and thanks them, and that’s important.
“These guys are big deals, big stars, but I think he has the roots from his family and the way he started to work with everybody from top to bottom.”
Penske said he knew from his first meeting with Keselowski about four years ago that this was a special young man.
Keselowski at the time was racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick.
There was not going to be any room for him at the Hendrick Sprint Cup shop with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt and, at the time, Mark Martin all under contract.
So Keselowski went and introduced himself to Penske.
“At one point he came by to see us, and he said that he’d like to come and race for our team,” Penske recalled. “But he couldn’t do it, he had a commitment (to Earnhardt).
“But he said: ‘When I do come, I want to help build a team to win the championship’, and I think he’s never forgotten that. That was the year before he started with us.”
When his contract with Earnhardt expired, Penske snapped him up to run, first, in the Nationwide Series and all he did was bring a NASCAR championship — Penske’s first and only so far — to the team.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, as Keselowski’s take-no-prisoners brand of racing rubbed some established stars like Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart the wrong way.
He has since won their grudging respect with his talent and that also impressed Penske.
“He went through a lot of rigmarole, some maybe he was due, some he wasn’t, but I think he has managed to develop a lot of rapport with the drivers,” Penske said. “I think they now trust him wheel to wheel. He’s not a reckless guy at all, and on and off the track I think he’s got high integrity, and that’s something we want.”
Penske said that he was in awe as Keselowski battled Johnson on the waning laps on Sunday.
“To be able to race the 48 — we’ve been wanting to race the 48 for as many years as I think I’ve been in this sport — and to be able to race side by side within two or three seconds for probably almost 100 laps and come out on top is a real credit to his driving skills,” he said.
Penske admitted that he enjoys Keselowski’s enthusiasm to the point the 75-year-old has became an avid tweeter and texter at Keselowski’s urging.
“He won’t let me sleep, I’ll tell you that.” Penske said. “I get Twitters — I’m a big texter now. He and I are talking all the time. I’ve got to get to my day job sometimes, I tell him.”
Penske has had his share of problem drivers — Kurt Busch and Paul Tracy come to mind — but he seems genuinely happy with Keselowski.
“I would say he’s delivered everything I expected,” he said.