DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — One of his drivers had just used a dominating run to capture his first career victory at famed Daytona International Speedway. The win was the 100th for the organization at NASCAR’s top level.
To get to victory lane, his other driver offered an assist in the closing laps. Unrelated, he also spun another driver on the last lap to create another round of hard feelings.
So instead of basking in the triumph of victory while wearing a champagne-soaked white shirt, Roger Penske was borderline angry in his impassioned defense of drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
Keselowski’s victory Saturday night was his third of the season, first at Daytona after years of struggles on the high-banked superspeedway. He got a late push on a final restart from Logano, who then irked Kurt Busch when contact on the final lap sent Busch spinning through the grass.
Busch, a former Penske driver, called it “an aggressive mistake,” but his crew chief Tony Gibson fumed on Twitter: “Stupid is as stupid does!!!”
Penske thought it was unfair.
“Joey has taken, I think, some undue criticism from my perspective,” the team owner said. “I could name three or four things that certainly weren’t his fault. He’s one of the best drivers on the racetrack out there day in and day out, and sure, people make mistakes. A lot of these drivers can knock somebody off the track, and they say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’ They don’t let Logano do that.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m behind him 300 percent, and I’ll talk to Kurt, he didn’t do it on purpose. … At the end of the day, that’s racing, as far as I’m concerned.”
Indeed, Logano has taken his share of hazing from many veterans during his rapid rise into NASCAR. He was famous before he’d ever turned a lap, hyped as the next big thing, and many drivers took umbrage to the family wealth that eased his road to NASCAR’s top level.
Penske is used to defending Logano, who was recruited to the team by Keselowski three years ago when Keselowski was unselfish enough to look past a teammate who could match him on the track and saw only a talent who could strengthen the organization.
Penske is also used to defending Keselowski, who is outspoken and doesn’t back down from anything. Unlike Logano, he had to claw his way through the racing ranks, and after fighting for everything he’s earned, he won’t bow to anyone.
But Penske apparently didn’t feel like he needed to defend Keselowski on Saturday night. Already annoyed with the Logano flap, he misinterpreted a question about Keselowski’s racing smarts and seemed to snap.
“He’s a calculating guy, and you’re not with him every day like we are in the shop, (seeing) what he brings to the race team,” Penske said. “He came early on, he said, ‘Look, I’m going to help you get a championship team.’ We did that. He helped to attract (crew chief) Paul Wolfe to the team.
“This is not a popularity contest, and anybody that thinks it is, you know, shouldn’t be sitting here. This is racing, and unfortunately some people have different ideas. But look, I wouldn’t trade these two drivers for anyone. They’re young, they’re aggressive, they win races. They work well with the sponsors, and they’re high integrity guys, so move on from there.”
Make no mistake, Captain, most owners would kill for your lineup.
Keselowski recruited Logano to the team the season after Keselowski delivered Penske his first Sprint Cup title. Since his 2013 arrival, Logano and Keselowski have combined for 24 Cup wins. They’ve won another 21 races in the Xfinity Series, which Penske uses to develop team personnel and give sponsors a sampling of the organization at a lower price than the Cup level.
They’ve helped develop Ryan Blaney, a future star in NASCAR who has been loaned to the Wood Brothers along with the several crew members who are preparing for the top level.
And they probably should have given Penske another two titles.
Keselowski was the class of the field in 2014, when he won six races, but had late bumps in the debut of the elimination format in NASCAR’s playoffs. Despite a win and four top-four finishes in the final five races, he was denied a shot to race for the title.
It was Logano who led the Penske charge last season. He won the Daytona 500 and three consecutive races in the Chase. But a feud with Matt Kenseth wouldn’t go away and Kenseth intentionally wrecked him in an act of retaliation that ultimately kept Logano out of the championship finale.
So it’s understandable that Penske is tired of the bad rap his drivers receive. They’ve proven to be among the elite talent in NASCAR, and their contributions to the storied Penske organization are immeasurable.
Together, in this 50th anniversary season of Team Penske, Keselowski and Logano are a massive part of the 100th win.
“The 100th in NASCAR is something special,” Penske said. “It’s a byproduct of all the good people we have, and to me we’ve got to continue to remember that. We lose more than we win in this business, and you’ve got to know how to deal with the downs and take advantage of the ups.
“We’ve competed in multiple series, and I think we’re almost at 450 wins now, and we’re, I think, three or four away from 500 poles. Our goal is 500 and 500. This was the first step to get to 100 in NASCAR.”