Roger Penske is optimistic that Brad Keselowski can prove a capable team leader in 2012. Penske, who fired Kurt Busch after one controversy too many, picked up AJ Allmendinger to drive the no.22 car in the offseason, but with the Richard Petty Motorsport refugee yet to win a race in his NASCAR career, the onus will very much be on Keselowski, a three-time winner last year en route to fifth in the Chase, to lead the team to its first Cup title in 2012.
Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 15 times, with legendary names like Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr and Helio Castroneves, but has found success in NASCAR curiously elusive. The team has only ever won the Daytona 500 once – with Ryan Newman in 2008 – and Penske, who also conquered Formula One with a victory in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, knows as well as anyone that NASCAR is proving an unwanted blemish on his CV.
But Penske is optimistic that the maturity and determination of lead driver Keselowski – in contrast to the temperamental Busch – will prove to be key to the team's success.
“When I met with Brad the year before he came to drive for us, he came to the shop and said, 'Look, I’d love to come to your organization someday and help you build the best team in the business,'” the owner said.
“I think he was instrumental in helping us get A.J. on board – because when you’re changing drivers like that, you don’t have months and months to do all kinds of research outside of what you can see on the track,” The Captain added.
“As we’ve tried to recruit other people into the organization, Brad’s the first guy to say, 'Let me get on the phone and give them some input into how good the team is and what we can deliver if you come to work for us here.'”
As for Keselowski himself, it is clear to see that his time at Penske has seen him develop – not only into a consummate race winner, but an intelligent thinker who can see events unfolding before they happen, a skill which has served the Jimmie Johnson's, Tony Stewart's and Jeff Gordon's of the sport very well indeed.
“It takes more than talent to win a championship,” Keselowski said. “This is a big, big ship at Penske Racing. There’s over 300 employees. The words of three or four people set the path for 300 some-odd employees. As a driver, you’re one of those three or four people.
“That path is so important because it’s a team sport. You can be the most talented quarterback in the league and not make the right calls at the line or not have the belief of his players. I think there’s a lot of power behind that. At the NASCAR level, it’s not good enough to be the most talented driver. You have to be a motivator. You have to be a team player.”
Last year, Brad broke his ankle after a hard crash testing at Road America, but bounced back to win at Pocono, still suffering from the after-effects, silencing many of his critics. He certainly has the respect of SPEED racing analyst and former driver Jimmy Spencer. 'Mr Excitement' lost his bet that Brad would fail to make the Chase, and was memorably pied, live on air, by the man himself.
“I think he’s at the right age,” Penske says. “You could see how good he really is when he got hurt. He’s a great commodity for us, and I think he’ll be a great star.”
It would take a brave man to discount Keselowski again this year.