Detroit — Whether it is his 500 career victories or Brad Keselowski trying for his fourth NASCAR Cup Series win in a row at Richmond Saturday night, Roger Penske said winning is largely about working with the best people.
Keselowski’s hot streak, which places him at the top of the standings with one playoff race done and nine to go, is the product of a trio of remarkable victories.
The third, on Sunday at Las Vegas, gave Penske 500 wins in 52 years of racing.
In each of the three, Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion, and crew chief Paul Wolfe grabbed the checkered flags in Team Penske cars that lacked winning pace.
In an era, across motor sports, in which the human element is too often difficult to discern, driver and strategist defied odds to beat better, faster cars.
“People that say that we didn’t have the best cars, you remember that the best cars are not only what is on the track, it’s who’s driving and what’s going on in the pits,” Penske said.
“We could not have won those races without that combination.
“I take my hat off to all of the guys,” he said. “The three wins in a row, you know, you wouldn’t dream about that with the competitive environment that we are in every single day, when we go down to these NASCAR races.
“You don’t beat guys like Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch or Martin Truex without all of the pieces, on the track and off the track.”
The seasonal achievements by Penske, Keselowski and Wolfe in the NASCAR Cup series are notable.
Penske’s career triumphs are legend.
At Darlington on Sept. 2 the strategy of Team Penske kept Keselowski’s No. 2 in the running.
With 22 of the 367 laps remaining, its quick pit stop put Keselowski in a three-wide race off pit row. He won it by a nose.
Then the only Michigan-born NASCAR Cup champ nailed the restart.
“We didn’t have the long-run speed we wanted,” Keselowski said. “But the short runs were great, and we were there when it counted.”
At Indianapolis on Sept. 10, Wolfe got the pit strategy right at a track that puts a premium on such judgement.
Wolfe’s prescience provided fresher tires for Keselowski to outmuscle Denny Hamlin on the restart with three laps left, and to outlast Erik Jones, of Bryon, Michigan, who came up fast in pursuit, but had to settle for second.
Then, Sunday at Las Vegas, after multiple crashes helped to eliminate superior competition, Keselowski clung to first place with through three well-executed restarts, to eventually win by 1.276 seconds.
His concern through all the high-stakes tension was whether Wolfe had gotten the fuel strategy right.
“I didn’t think it was ever going to end,” Keselowski said after the race. “I was worried about running out of gas there at the end.”
Later, in a media conference, Keselowski said, “I feel like we stole the last three races.”
The win in Las Vegas clinched a spot in the second round of the playoffs, and furthered Penske’s real-life fable.
It all began with Roger at the wheel of at 1957 fuel-injected competition Corvette in South Eastern Crate Association (SECA) races in Maryland, or hill climbs around Pennsylvania, while he attended college.
“When I go back and think about starting a race team, after driving, because I wanted to be a businessman, and to think about what we’ve been able to accomplish on this business side, with some 66,000 employees, and then to turn around and to think we’ve now won our 500th race is really amazing,” Penske said, in a phone interview.
“And, it’s really a credit to so many great people who made us great winners. I’m so proud of every one of those who have contributed.”
On Tuesday, Team Penske had a shop party in Mooresville, North Carolina, with more than 400 employees.
“Just the pride,” Penske said. “Everyone had a hat that said '500' on it.
“It’s a special time of my life, and a special time to say thanks to all of the people that made a difference, our partners, our sponsors, our drivers and even the lowest person with the entry-level job, polishing the wheels and cleaning the trucks, made a difference.”
He points with pride to the 500 wins.
By comparison, Ferrari, in Formula One only, has 233 over about the same number of years.
But comparing Penske’s widely-varying racing career is difficult. In some respects, it is incomparable.
“I think the fact that we have been disciplined in growing our businesses over time has given us the understanding of how important human capital is,” he said.
“And, the racing success has created a brand for us not only on a national level, but an international level. So, that gives us the ability to recruit.”
When people in motor sports work for Penske, whether it is Keselowski, Will Power, Rusty Wallace, Helio Castroneves, Joey Logano, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi or the guys who keep the wheels on the haulers spit-polish clean, they are aware of how a successful and demanding businessman places his emphasis on the sport
“We want to be racers,” Penske said. “We are not in the racing business, that’s one thing. We are racers.”
Of his 500 wins, Penske said, “It’s another goal post for others to try to kick the ball over.
“But, we are not done.”
And at Richmond on Saturday, Keselowski tries for four in a row, and the 501st win.