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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Brad Keselowski and Roger Penske -- Michigan duo make championship dreams a reality

Take a young man from Rochester Hills, combine him with a Michigan icon, and what do you get? … a champion.

Such is the story of Brad Keselowski and Roger Penske, who are on top of the world after clinching the first NASCAR title for both of them this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Yes, you read that right, after almost 4 decades in the sport, Roger Penske had never won a title until the brash young driver who came from a truly dedicated racing family in Oakland County delivered it to him.

And the most amazing thing is that it almost never happened, and Penske can thank Mark Martin for his title, at least in part. The only reason that this union was even allowed to happen is because there was simply no room for Brad at Hendrick Motorsports. They had groomed him, via Jr. Motorsports, to join the fold at the sport’s top team, and he was eager to join that team.

But when Mark Martin decided that he wasn’t giving up the seat in the #5 car anytime soon, Brad was out of options at Hendrick due to NASCAR’s four-car limit (Jeff, Jimmie and Jr. sure weren't going anywhere).

In comes Penske, the Michigan icon, swooping up a talent grown right in his own back yard. He lured Keselowski with the promise of running for titles, and winning them. And on that he has delivered right off the bat.

This is, of course, in large part due to the amazing driving ability of Keselowski. If you’re watched him race this year or in the past, you know that Brad doesn’t back down and has made some great late-race moves to win races.

Sometimes that gets him in trouble (as evidenced by his battles both on track and verbally with Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch), but more often it lands him in Victory Lane. Brad knows one speed: Fast. He’ll make moves other drivers might not, and that dedication and focus is what has taken him from Midwest short tracks to the edge of NASCAR superstardom.

The irony is that Brad probably should have won the title the past two years, but Cup interlopers kept it from him. Now he did the same thing, competing full-time in both series and taking the crown in the Nationwide Series.

My prediction is that he did it just in time, as NASCAR will probably crack down on the double-dippers, and not allow them to run for the Nationwide title in 2011 and beyond. It’s necessary if the secondary series is to create an identity of its own.

Penske said the focus on winning a title was there from the very beginning of the year.

“At the beginning of the season, we had a vision on how to win this championship. We had the reliability and our guys put it together,” he said after the title was clinched.

Penske went on to praise Keselowski’s talents, and said this title, amazingly his first ever in NASCAR, means as much as some of his other big accomplishments in motorsports on the Indycar side.

“Well, I saw (Brad) as a great driver. He had a little edge on him which you want. He’s not afraid to go. He’s his own man. To me, we had the horse that he could ride. It all worked and we’ve got a champion,” Penske beamed.

“We’ve been in NASCAR a long, long time. To me, it’s like winning the Indy 500 for the first time. What can you say; it’s a team sport and a team effort. To me, that’s what we came here for. Paul Wolfe, the whole group, they worked their heart out and we got the results.”

Likewise, Brad was glad to deliver this early Christmas present to the man known as the Captain.

“It’s pretty awesome. I’m not sure how many (overall) wins that he has, I can’t think of anybody that has more. This one was awesome and it’s incredible that we were able to get him a championship.”

He also gave Dodge its first Nationwide Series title, which is special since his family has heavily supported Dodge over its long history in motorsports.

“It’s pretty awesome. My family has a lot of history with Dodge in the Truck Series and it’s like I grew up with the brand. Dodge made a huge commitment to the Nationwide Series this year with the Charger and Challenger and to be able to give Ralph (Gilles, President and CEO of Dodge) and all the employees back in Auburn Hills (Michigan) the championship is really cool. All their support has made a huge difference this season. I got to drive really fast and cool Dodge Chargers and Challengers this year and to give them a championship is really special.”

Gilles was thrilled at the news, saying: “Winning the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship is a remarkable achievement for Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing and Dodge. Brad not only won the championship, but drove the Dodge Challenger to victory in two of the four new car races. The countless hours spent maximizing the performance of the Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger for competition has produced the ultimate reward – the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship. We’re extremely proud of our partnership with the entire team at Penske Racing. The competition this year has been intense, making this championship even more satisfying. This is the perfect end to an amazing season.”

The future is still a question mark for Keselowski, as his Cup effort with Penske isn’t going as well as he’d hoped (he only recently got his first top-10 of the season), but one thing’s for sure: The kid’s got talent, is young and has a bright future, and given the right car he can win a title in any series.

I think back to Denny Hamlin and others who, during Brad’s tangles with a variety of drivers, said that Keselowski was going to be a flash in the pan, and not achieve much in the sport.

I wonder what those drivers thought when they saw Keselowski hoisting the championship trophy this weekend.

Toyota top manufacturer in Truck series … again

When it comes to Trucks, there is clearly a king, and it is Toyota, which claimed its fifth straight manufacturers’ title this weekend in that series.
In that five-year span, they will have claimed three titles once Todd Bodine clinches his title for this season.

While still lagging behind Chevy in the Cup series, the automaker can claim a double success, as they also took the title in Nationwide, based mostly on strong performances by the Joe Gibbs Racing operation.

In the Truck series, teams contributing to the title include Billy Ballew Motorsports, Germain Racing, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Randy Moss Motorsports and Red Horse Racing.

Toyota drivers have 14 wins and 10 poles, with two races still on the schedule. Overall, since entering the series in 2004, Toyota has 79 wins – led by 21 from Todd Bodine and 17 from Kyle Busch ... and apparently one by Brandon Whitt of which I have absolutely no recollection.

Bid on a Champion’s Week experience

Fans can bid on a chance to experience NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Week in Las Vegas through several VIP experiences, which are being offered by The NASCAR Foundation in an online charity auction at NASCAR.COM. The auction, which runs through Nov. 10, features all-access packages and chances to attend events with the 2010 Cup champion, other drivers, and TV personalities.
Details of the packages are:

-- NASCAR Evening Series VIP Experience: Auction winners will kick off the week by attending the NASCAR Evening Series Sponsored by Bank of America on Wednesday, Dec. 1 from 6-8 p.m. at Lupo by Wolfgang Puck. At this exclusive invitation-only event fans will enjoy food and beverage and a meet-and-greet with the world famous chef Wolfgang Puck. This package also includes one hotel room for three nights at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, two tickets to The Lion King at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, dinner for two at Strip Steak at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Wolfgang Puck 25-piece cookware set and gift certificate for two (2) to Spago. Bank of America, the Official Bank of NASCAR, has generously offered to match the winning bidders’ donation up to $5,000 as part of their participation with the NASCAR Evening Series event.
-- Ultimate NASCAR Champion’s Week VIP Experience: This experience package includes seats for two people in the Victory Lap procession on the double-decker bus riding through Las Vegas as well as tickets to the NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon, NASCAR After the Lap and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony.
-- NASCAR Champion’s Week VIP Experience (Five packages: Two seats at the 2010 NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon at the Bellagio on Thursday, Dec. 2, two guaranteed seats to NASCAR After the Lap at the Hard Rock on Thursday, Dec. 2, two passes to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pre-Reception at the Wynn on Friday, Dec. 3, two passes to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Red Carpet Walk at the Wynn on Friday, Dec. 3 and two seats at the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at the Wynn on Friday, Dec. 3.
-- Ride in the Victory Lap Experience: Seats for two people in the double-decker bus that will ride in the Victory Lap procession through Las Vegas following the top 12 drivers.
-- The Coca-Cola Chase for Charity: The Coca-Cola Chase for Charity is an online auction that allows fans to bid on collectible, autographed items. Bidding is live now and new items are added weekly. Bids close on Friday, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET.

All auction proceeds will benefit The NASCAR Foundation, which supports a wide range of charitable initiatives. For more information, visit WWW.NASCAR.COM/foundation.

Jail & Bail Event raises $150K for Scholarship Fund
In other charity news, NASCAR drivers, celebrities and some fans recently helped collect $150,000 in donations and pledges at the Third Official Jail and Bail charity event, benefitting the Brienne Davis Scholarship Fund Oct. 12, at Brickhouse Tavern in Davidson, N.C. Over the three years of the event, more than $300,000 has been raised to provide scholarships for qualified female students to attend one of Universal Technical Institute’s campuses across the U.S., including the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, N.C.

The evening included NASCAR drivers and other celebrities being “sentenced” and put behind bars with all of the “bail money” going to support the scholarship fund. Inmates included NASCAR drivers Landon Cassill; Kevin Conway; Denny Hamlin; Brad Keselowski; Travis Kvapil; Joey Logano; Casey Mears; Michael McDowell; Joe Nemechek; Max Papis; Tony Raines; Brian Scott; Reed Sorenson; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Tony Stewart. Others locked up were the No. 11 FedEx Pit Crew, NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Jerry Cook and NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and Red Farmer of “The Alabama Gang.”

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