They are close friends. But if Penske comes up short in the bid for an inaugural championship, Hendrick will collect his 11th, his sixth with Jimmie Johnson.
“We’re racing the gold standard, the best in the business,” Penske said. “I have a lot of respect for Rick Hendrick, both on the business side and certainly on the racing side. And Jimmie Johnson is a cool cat. He has gotten it done five times.”
Being in position to deprive Johnson championship No. 6 serves as ample testimony to how far his own team has progressed this year, Penske concluded.
The past 14 months have been somewhat turbulent in the normally buttoned-down Penske operation.
The team and oft-volatile star Kurt Busch ended a strained relationship after the 2011 season. AJ Allmendinger, Busch’s replacement, came into conflict with NASCAR’s substance-abuse policy and served a suspension. Penske then released Allmendinger and had to shop for a 2013 regular, winding up with talented Joey Logano.
But Penske, who remains a supporter of Allmendinger, said the uncharacteristic turmoil, addressed and eliminated, falls into line with what has been a career-long mantra: “In the business world, not every day is a good day.” You address problems and you move on.
The split with Busch had a huge silver lining. Keselowski, who won a Nationwide title for Penske in 2010, had been the junior driver in the two-car team.
“I sat down with Brad and said, ‘You’re going to have to be the leader of this team,’ ” Penske said.
That pitch landed in Keselowski’s wheelhouse. He has warmed to the role.
“Brad’s smart,” Penske said. “I think his windshield is much wider than many of the other drivers’.”
That’s Penske’s way of saying Keselowski’s peripheral vision and awareness encompasses not only what is happening on the race track but off as well. That could produce a long-sought and much-coveted Penske championship Sunday.