HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It had been a humbling 24 hours of championship racing for Roger Penske when he settled in for the plane ride back to Detroit.
His heart had been broken in California, where Will Power coughed away the IndyCar title by crashing out of the season finale. The disappointed team owner then made his way to Chicago for the opening race of NASCAR's 10-race championship series, where Penske driver Brad Keselowski stole a surprise win over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
It was a tremendous emotional swing for Penske, who said to no one in particular on that flight home, "Well, we raced with the big boys today. And we won."
Penske, the most successful team owner in open-wheel history, has little to show for 40 years of NASCAR. Keselowski, the 28-year-old blue collar antiestablishment Michigan native, could change that for "The Captain".
Keselowski takes a 20-point lead over Johnson into today's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where a finish of 15th or better will give Penske his first Sprint Cup title. It would have been his first ever NASCAR championship if Keselowski hadn't won him a second-tier Nationwide title in 2010 — his first season with Penske Racing.
Penske has won 23 national championships in open wheel racing and 15 Indianapolis 500s, and his passion and his focus are usually on directed on that part of the motorsports program. Although his NASCAR organization had 61 wins before Keselowski arrived, it only contended for a championship once — in 1993 when Rusty Wallace won 10 races and still finished second to Dale Earnhardt.