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Penske could spoil Hendrick’s NASCAR success

Posted: November 20, 2012 4:20 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Brad Keselowski’s gift to Roger Penske on Sunday was nearly 40 years in the making. The 28-year-old Michigan native helped Penske fill his trophy case with his first Sprint Cup Championship after crossing the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the final race of the year.

With his win, Keselowski became only the third driver since 1972 to take home a championship within his first three full seasons. Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt and future Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon are actually the other two.

The driver of the No. 2 car also capped off one of the best late season finishes since the creation of the “Chase for the Cup” eight years ago.

He never finished worse than 15th in the final 10 races, while also tying Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin for the most victories this year at five apiece.

The final standings left Keselowski ahead of Johnson by only 39 points, which likely didn’t matter much in the mind of his owner. Considered the gold-standard of open wheel racing, Penske has 15 Indy 500 wins and 12 Indy Car Championships, but before Sunday’s race, his NASCAR program was typically considered among the middle of the pack.

In May, the Sporting News listed Penske’s team as only the fifth best in the sport, trailing more productive organizations like Rick Hendrick and Roush Fenway.

Hendrick’s crew of racers includes Johnson and Gordon, who have a combined nine championships, as well as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, two of the circuit’s most popular drivers.

Most strikingly, in the last 12 years, Hendrick has hoisted the season ending trophy six times, only being hindered by championship runs from three drivers, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Tony Stewart.

With all but Gordon under the age of 40, Hendrick’s dominance was set to continue. But with the emergence of Penske Racing, his lofty spot atop the sport may begin to crumble.

Keselowski, the eighth-youngest champion in the sport’s history, was actually at one time tied to Hendrick, but signed with Penske in 2010.

He’ll be joined next year by Joey Logano, the 22-year-old Connecticut native who already has two Sprint Cup wins under his belt.

Logano will be taking over the No. 22 car from Sam Hornish Jr., who has driven the car since the suspension and subsequent release of A.J. Allmendinger. There was actually speculation that Penske would give Hornish the full-time ride for 2013, but instead, he decided to go with Logano.

At age 33, Hornish a former Indy Car Series champion, has found little success behind the wheel of a stock car. In a six-year NASCAR career, he’s notched zero wins in the sport’s top circuit to go along with only one win in the second tier Nationwide Series.

Comparably, Logano, NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year three seasons ago, has 18 wins in the Nationwide Series, including nine this past season.

If he can translate that success into victories at the top level, that’ll give Penske a very powerful one-two punch.

Even by combining their ages, Keselowski and Logano are only slightly older than current drivers Jeff Burton, age 45, and Bobby Labonte, age 48. As a pair, they are actually younger than 53-year-old Mark Martin.

Should Gordon and Johnson hang it up earlier than expected, Hendrick, as it stands now, would be left with only Earnhardt and Kahne, who have never won a championship. If that’s the case, Penske Racing will certainly have a leg up on the competition for years to come.

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