After last weekend’s win at Kentucky Speedway, I said we were getting into championship form. I really meant that. Our team and the way we’re doing things is starting to feel a lot like 2012.
I can’t say enough about how badly we want another championship. People can look at me for the rest of my career if I don’t ever win another one and say it was a fluke. Winning a second just kind of cements that we were a team to be reckoned with.
I’d like to spend this week’s blog entry talking about someone who has played an incredibly important role in our team’s success: our owner, Roger Penske.
Roger brings out the best in you. You want to be successful because he’s successful for himself. You understand — at least I do — what it means to drive for someone who has high-level expectations and has achievements. It’s a calling card that makes you want to do the same.
It’s almost impossible to communicate all of the different ways that Roger has helped me improve as a race car driver, and as a person.
But that’s not going to stop me from trying.
Growing up in Michigan, Roger was a legend in my mind well before we met for the first time. He was a key element in putting together the Super Bowl in Detroit in 2006. He had gotten so much positive press about it at the time that quite frankly, it sounded like the Super Bowl would never have come to Detroit without him. People in metro Detroit had a lot of respect for him (and still do to this day). It definitely stuck with me.
Michigan International Speedway — the closest NASCAR track to my house growing up — was also one of the race tracks Roger used to own. It always had a standard of excellence, and I associated that with him as well.
And finally, my dad and uncle competed in USAC’s stock car division for a time period, and they raced against some of Roger’s teams and drivers. They had a lot of respect for him too.
So all of that was on my mind when I met Roger in 2008.
At the time, I was running a Nationwide car for JR Motorsports, and running pretty well. We had just won a race, and I was on Roger’s radar. He had Ryan Newman driving the No. 12 car for him, but Ryan had let it be known that he was going to leave Penske for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Roger was looking for a replacement, and I was one of the drivers he wanted to meet with.
I didn’t really grasp the magnitude of what that meant at the time. I was 24 years old, living on Dale Jr.’s property, and Penske Racing was the closest race shop, maybe a mile away as the crow flies. Roger wanted to talk to me? Sure thing, I thought. I figured I’d just drive over after dinner, and hey, I’d get to meet Roger Penske.
So that’s what I did. That night, I met Roger in this huge behemoth of a shop. I remember being struck by the shop itself. If you based what you knew about race cars on “Days of Thunder,” you’d think race cars were built in a barn. They’re not. They’re constructed in engineering labs that look as clean and sterile as a state-of-the-art surgery center. They’re incredible facilities.
Roger’s was on a whole other level. Later, I’d come to understand that it’s that way because he wants it to be that way. It showcases his attention to detail. It’s a reflection of who he is.
We sat down in a small conference room. He was dressed in a perfectly ironed suit, there with the rest of his management team. I was wearing a pair of jeans and an untucked dress shirt. In a world where I spent most of my time around Dale Jr., that was dressed up.
(Looking back, I have to shake my head and laugh.)
He and I talked for a little while. I told him I was honored to meet him, and had the utmost respect for him. He wanted to know where I saw my career going. I explained that I had a pretty good deal, and intended to honor the commitments that I had made, and that had been made to me. Hendrick Motorsports had me slated to be driving a Cup car in the not-too-distant future.
He respected that. That’s one of the things about Roger, Rick Hendrick and the other top owners. They’re all very respectful of one another. There’s a kind of class that they all have.
We talked a little more, and then we went our separate ways. He told me, in so many words, that the door was always open.
A CHANGE OF CIRCUMSTANCES
The original plan at Hendrick was for me to take over for Mark Martin. Mark was supposed to drive for a full year in 2009, then a half year in 2010, and then retire. Afterward, I was going to become a full-time Cup driver.
But early in 2009, Mark won at Phoenix, and decided that he wanted to run the full season in 2010 and 2011. I understood. In racing, it’s rare to get a high quality ride. When your team is on and your car is winning, you don’t want to let go. After I won the Talladega Cup race in April of 2009, I was informed that Hendrick Motorsports wouldn’t be picking up my contract.
I was without a ride, and I can feel comfortable saying this now — I had no idea where I was going to land. I believed I would land somewhere, but there was no guaranteeing how good that team would be. Part of me also worried that my best shot had just come and gone.
One day, a few weeks later, the phone rang. It was Roger. “All right,” he said, “we’ll do a Nationwide team.”
So I called Roger, hoping that the door he had opened for me might still be open. It was, just like Roger said it would be.
That phone call changed the direction of my life.
We agreed that I’d drive the No. 12 car, but I had concerns about the team. It was coming off a disastrous season, and was one of the worst major teams in the point standings. Roger and I both had lists of what needed to change to improve the No. 12 team, but they weren’t the same.
I had an idea to help with my concerns about the 12: Running a Nationwide team. At least that way, while we figured out the issues on the Cup side, I’d still have a real chance to win.
Roger wasn’t in love with the idea. He wanted my focus completely on the No. 12 car.
One day, a few weeks later, the phone rang. It was Roger.
“All right,” he said, “we’ll do a Nationwide team.”
He also told me that if I didn’t like driving for him, he would let me out of my contract. He was convinced — probably more than I was at the time — that we would knock it out of the park.
At that moment, I had my first glimpse at how lucky I’d gotten. Roger understood what I needed — a real, consistent chance to show people that I could succeed as a driver.
That’s when I knew that driving for Roger Penske was the right thing to do.
THE PENSKE WAY
As I’ve gotten to know Roger, I’ve come to understand that it’s the subtle, small things he does that mean a lot to you.
Back in 2010, I’d gotten into two or three run-ins with Carl Edwards, and then followed that up by getting into it with Kyle Busch. By the time I had my issues with Kyle, I had been really pushed to my limit. I wasn’t going to take any more from anyone, I’d decided. I was putting my foot down.
We were racing at Bristol, Tennessee, that weekend. In the Nationwide race, Kyle and I were vying for the lead. He was underneath me and came up. We made contact and he brushed the wall. I got in front of him.
In the next corner, he just drove in as hard as he could, and wrecked me.
He definitely cost us the win. We ended up finishing 17th or 18th. Not only that — we were running for the championship that year, and I had the lead in the championship standings. So I was pretty upset. And he made some comments to me afterwards, because he ended up winning the race, which I thought were crappy.
The next day we had to run the Cup race. In driver introductions, Kyle took the stage. A few of the fans booed him, and sarcastically, he said, “Oh, you guys are so loving.”
I’d had enough. I introduced myself, and then said, “Kyle Busch is an ass.” Then I walked away.
The fans went crazy. But Roger was there. Roger has this way of letting you know that you’ve disappointed him without saying anything to you. You just feel it.
I knew that I had let him down by not keeping my cool.
What’s amazing about how Roger handles situations like that one is that he stands his ground and lets you know how he feels, but he’s respectful about it. He’s true to himself, but he’ll also do his best to work through a situation. Sometimes that means compromising. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
He also is incredibly supportive. We’ve always had a relationship where I can call and talk to him. And he’s not afraid to call me. In fact, he calls me more than I call him — just to go over things, which means a lot to me personally. He calls on good days. He calls on bad days. He’s there for you.
By way of example, during that same 2010 season, there was kind of a divide in the NASCAR community about me and my ability. We were having huge success in Nationwide, but were really struggling in the Cup Series.
It was Roger who stood up for me. “Look,” he explained, “I’ve seen this guy race with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and all these top of the line drivers. Then he gets in the Cup car and he’s nowhere close. It can’t be him.” It was Roger who quieted the doubters.
Even when I’ve had run-ins with the media, he’s always had my back.
That’s one of the things I respect about Roger the most, and one of the things that makes us as close as we are. He supports you, and he shows you the right way to do things as he’s doing it — often, without you even knowing it.
DRIVEN TO WIN
The other thing about Roger is that he wants to win as much as I do.
After we won the 2010 Nationwide championship, when we were in Victory Lane, Jerry Punch said to me, “It’s hard to give a billionaire something, and you just gave him his first NASCAR Championship.”
How much that meant to Roger sunk in a few days later at the Nationwide banquet in Miami. He got up and gave a speech completely off the cuff, and it blew me away. He’s one of the best speakers I’ve ever seen. He talked about how long he’d been around, and what success meant to him. He talked a lot about Detroit, and wanting to bring life back to the city, which was crippled by the 2008 recession. He talked about what a championship meant to him, and to his family.
Being part of that was special.
Two years later, when we were chasing the Cup Series title, I got another glimpse of how much NASCAR success means to Roger.
It came during the October Chase race at Charlotte. At the time, we were leading in points, and we were leading the race. There was a late caution. It messed up our strategy, and we wound up running out of gas. So instead of winning the race, we finished 11th. It was only the fifth race of 10 Chase races. We still kept the points lead. But instead of winning and growing our points lead, we lost some of our points and the race, too.
Roger has a saying about racing. There are those in the racing business, he says, and they’re all about the business. Then there are racers. They’re about winning.
Roger’s a racer. And after the Charlotte race, he was so mad he punched a golf cart.
That was one of those moments where you knew how hungry he was. Nobody wanted to disappoint him again. Fortunately, we didn’t, and we won the title.
Roger has many businesses and they’re all successful. He’s always thinking about the future: “Let’s do this and this, and we’re going to go here and do that.” He’s not the type of guy that really just sits and kind of basks in the moment, and he definitely doesn’t live in the past.
For a month after we won the Cup Series title, all he could talk about was winning the championship. He basked in it.
That meant everything to me. That’s when I knew I’d made a mark.
I’m hoping we’re going to have chance to do it again. Soon.