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Penske’s attention to detail puts him ahead of pack

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Roger Penske

Detroit — As they race for the Sprint Cup championship this season, NASCAR teams grapple with different specifications for cars during three races in Michigan and Kentucky that foreshadow the design setup for the 2017 season.

So far, Team Penske claimed the checkered flag in both races where the new “package” was in place.

The third race is 2 p.m. Sunday (NBCSN), the Pure Michigan 400, at MIS.

That Team Penske would be the first to best master details of a new design is little surprise, and neither is Team Penske contending for the championship again, this season.

The importance of being Roger Penske, through 50 years of Team Penske and for almost a decade earlier when he was a driver, is a devotion to the details of motor sport. It burnishes Penske’s legacy and is acknowledged wherever cars race.

“For all those years I raced against Penske, it was very clear that they had a way they were going to do things,” said Jeff Burton, who had 21 career wins as a driver and is now a racing analyst for NBC Sports, which will feature Penske in its pre-race coverage Sunday. “Everything was always done right, truck and trailers and pit equipment and, of course, the cars.

“In NASCAR, early on, they were having success. But not the success you would have thought Roger would be having. And that really turned the last several years.

“And I really believe that the Roger Penske approach works better in today’s environment than it did 10 years ago. Because today’s environment is much more businesslike, it’s much more engineer driven.”

The preoccupation with details was, at first, a revolutionary new standard that eventually keyed decades of prevailing success in IndyCar and wins in other forms of racing, and that ultimately allowed him to prevail in Sprint Cup as the technical aspects of racing became paramount.

It still distinguishes Penske.

When Porsche plotted its return to racing in the United States in 2005, it tapped Penske to deliver it to the American Le Mans Series.

Penske’s Porsches took center stage in 2006, winning immediately.

“I remember I walked in one day and here’s the whole damned Porsche team,” said the retired Sprint Cup driver Rusty Wallace, who raced for Team Penske for 14 seasons. “And I’m like, where in the hell did this come from?

“Well, Porsche wanted me to run this team, and so I’ve decided to do it.’

“What was the outcome?” said Wallace, the 1989 Winston Cup champion. “He goes out there and wins damned near everything for Porsche.

“I’m just really impressed with the guy.

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when I don’t think, man, I wonder what he’s got next up his sleeve? Or Roger would do it this way, or Roger would do it that way.

“He’s like a second father to me.”

The Penske way all began long ago, and is perhaps best exhibited by race car presented to him by used Ferrari dealer from Philadelphia, after the 1970 Can-Am sports car season.

The Ferrari 512s, financed by the motor sport titan Enzo Ferrari, was entering its second year in the World Sports Car Championship in 1971.

The racing series, which included endurance races at Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans and Watkins Glen, often featured the Ferraris chasing the eventual victor, a car that would become a legend in all of racing, the Porsche 917.

But when the dealer present Penske with the Ferrari, in a short time it was the car to beat.

Penske retrofitted his 512m — “m” for modified from the Ferrari factory, 512s cars — creating a car that rattled Porsche and drew the attention of the racing world.

“You could eat your dinner off the footwell,” said one of his drivers, David Hobbs, now a racing commentator for NBC Sports, currently on the Formula One broadcasts. “The whole thing was immaculate.”

At first, all of the shiny metal and neatly creased racing suits seemed contrivance or, at least, irrelevant to triumphs on the raceways.

But the obsession with details ran far deeper. And as they first looked at the gloss rise from Penske’s Ferrari, rivals had no idea he thought to equip it with a new fuel cell system that provided for refueling almost twice as fast as his competitors.

When they discovered it and complained, officials from the sanctioning body, FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) looked at the book and discovered no rule barred it.

“I think Roger’s success is not an accident for sure,” said Joey Logano, who won the first race at Michigan this season. “You don’t just get lucky that many times.

“I’ve never met harder working individual than that guy. Effort equals results. That is the thing he says the most.

“And he’s always looking forward, and when we’re in the media room after a win, he always says the same thing every single time: Don’t trip on your press clippings. Keep looking forward.

“He’s become such an amazing leader for our race team that he doesn’t have to say a lot to command respect.”

The passion for the least little thing about racing attracts driving talent, too. Whether it is the IndyCar racers on Belle Isle or the NASCAR guys in Brooklyn, they also like to race with Roger because of his racer’s mentality.

Penske’s clearly identifies with the drivers including the general lack of “team rules” when it comes to competing against each other. In turn, his competitiveness, experience behind the wheel — including Formula One races in the early 1960s — and his ability to attract top talent, draws them to him.

“First of all, he never quits,” Wallace said. “I like that attitude about him.

“Every time there is an issue, it’s just like he never gives up.

“The three times I ever went to Roger and said, `Man, I don’t know what I’m going to do about this stuff.’ And he goes, `Hey, just get going. Just keep going,” Wallace said.

“If we stop, everything stops. So, we’re not going to stop. Let’s just keep going.’”

Wallace also said Penske’s endurance is remarkable, at 79, and racing seems to make him younger, along with working out.

“I saw him up on the spotter’s deck in Pennsylvania, at Pocono. And I thought, man, he looks like he just went five years younger.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @greggkrupa

Pure Michigan 400

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Michigan

TV: NBCSN

Schedule: Today — Noon, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series first practice; 1:30,: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice; 4, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series final practice; 5:15, Pure Michigan 400 pole qualifying, Saturday — 8:30 a.m.,NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice; 9:45 a.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series pole qualifying; 11:30 a.m., NASCAR Sprint Cup Series final practice; 1 p.m.: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Careers for Veterans 200.

Defending champion: Matt Kenseth

Tickets: Go to mispeedway.com