CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Fortunes turn fast in racing. Roger Penske knows that well.
In an emotional 24-hour span, his bid to win the IndyCar championship came up just short — again — when points leader Will Power crashed early in the season finale. It made Penske a runner-up in the IndyCar final standings for a third consecutive year, and the fourth time since Penske Racing's last title in 2006.
Penske left California disappointed, but not defeated. He was rewarded the next day when Brad Keselowski won NASCAR's opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"I guess the first thing is that after last night at California Speedway, I wasn't sure what to expect when I came here," Penske said after Keselowski's win on Sunday. "It's a great day for us. It cools me down a little bit after being hot last night."
Keselowski's win at Chicagoland made the third-year Penske driver the Sprint Cup points leader for the first time in his career, and reaffirmed that The Captain may actually have a shot at a NASCAR championship this year.
It's the one crown that has eluded Penske, one of the most successful team owners in history. He has 15 Indianapolis 500 wins and 12 open-wheel championships. But in 29 years in NASCAR, Penske has never claimed the spot on the stage at the end of the season.
He tried for 15 years with Rusty Wallace, who built a Hall of Fame career driving for Penske. But not even a 10-win season in 1993 could get Penske that title; Wallace wound up second to Dale Earnhardt in the final standings.
Then along came Keselowski, who was unapologetic about his brash driving style or his big mouth. He says what he believes, races to win and doesn't let much stand in his way.
So even though he had a good gig in the Hendrick Motorsports pipeline, waiting in the wings for an open seat at NASCAR's top organization wasn't good enough for Keselowski. He decided he wanted to go somewhere else, and help another organization reach to the top.
He decided the best fit was Penske, where both driver and owner could reach their goals together.
Penske recalled speaking to Keselowski about a potential partnership when Keselowski was still under contract to Hendrick.
"He came by to see us and he said that he'd like to come and race for our team. But he couldn't do it, he had a commitment," Penske said. "But he said, 'When I do come, I want to help build a team to win the championship.' I think he's never forgotten that."
Keselowski's desire has clearly resonated with Penske, who had created a perception that NASCAR was secondary to his open-wheel passion. He spends most of his time in IndyCar, where he was the race strategist for Ryan Briscoe this season. So when both series race on the same day, Penske is always with his open-wheel teams.
Keselowski makes it hard for him to stay away.
"That's one of the things, I've got to check in with Brad. He expects me here," Penske said.
Penske has had an increased presence in NASCAR the last year or so, and Keselowski is the attraction. His win Sunday was his first Chase victory, but seventh Cup win in two seasons. Although Kurt Busch was an annual title contender in his six years with Penske, he won just eight races with the organization.
Keselowski makes it hard to say no, especially when he's passionate about an idea or a belief.
He was certain Penske needed to strengthen its development system, and in 2010 he won the Nationwide Series championship for the organization. But the bigger payoff is in the feeder system at Penske. Paul Wolfe was pulled from the Nationwide Series to be Keselowski's Cup crew chief, and the team stayed in-house again last December when they moved Todd Gordon up to the car currently driven by Sam Hornish Jr.
It was Keselowski who pushed Penske to go after Joey Logano, who will take over Hornish's seat at the end of the season and give Penske one of the youngest and most talented lineups in NASCAR.
Keselowski, aware of the standard Penske Racing has set in IndyCar, is determined to take the organization to that same level in NASCAR.
"I think that these are really good times, and I think we're just getting into them, and the best is still yet to come here at Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "I really believe in the process that we have going forward, and bringing on Joey is certainly one piece of that. I feel like Penske Racing is putting itself in a position to be a team that can win multiple titles over the next few years and to be the elite team, elite company it's capable of being across the field in NASCAR."