Brad Keselowski had the Sprint Cup title well within reach and a decent day would give Penske Racing its first title at NASCAR’s top level. But weird things happen in racing, and the team owner wasn’t taking anything for granted.
And then he slipped, just slightly, admitting two days before the Nov. 18 finale that he’d told his upper management group he was sick and tired of being just another face in the crowd at the season-ending awards ceremony.
“I kid these guys and say, `I don’t want to sit down in the front row anymore, I want to be up on the stage so I see who’s at the party,’” Penske said.
Well, “The Captain” was assured of a spot on the main stage Friday night at Wynn Las Vegas Resort, where the party was very much for Penske.
Penske is the titan of motorsports, the gold standard of open-wheel racing. He’s got 23 championships in various series and 15 Indianapolis 500 victories, but his NASCAR operation never could reach the pinnacle.
“I’ve known Roger Penske since I was a teenager, I have worked with Roger Penske my entire professional life, and it’s really, really exciting for me to know and see Roger because in everything he’s done, he’s done it with high integrity, he’s done it with incredible effort and he’s done it with amazing class,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said in an unscripted moment of a speech during one of the Champion’s Week events.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled that Roger, you’re getting your first Sprint Cup championship … way to go. I’m really impressed.”
That’s been the sentiment all week in Las Vegas, where Penske is the toast of the town.
“I think for Roger, as long as he’s been in the sport and as hard as he’s tried and all the championships he’s won in the other series, that everybody likes seeing somebody achieve this because he’s worked so hard for this,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. “And he’s such an amazing person, and such a successful person, that a lot of this banquet is around him.”
At his pristine car dealership inside the Wynn, he was the center of attention at a reception to celebrate the achievement. Surrounded by sparkling Ferrari’s and Maserati’s, the 75-year-old Penske threw back cold Miller Lite’s as he spent most of the evening hanging out by a virtual racing simulator.
He kept a running order of who he wanted to next drive the simulator, and excitedly noted who logged the fastest laps.
“I’m buying one of these,” Penske kept repeating.
One of those to try the simulator and mingle at the party was IndyCar rival Chip Ganassi, who paid his respects to the owner he’s admired his entire career.