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'The Captain' and his first mate on the cusp of winning NASCAR's title

After spending more than two decades navigating the stormy waters of full-time NASCAR ownership, The Captain, it appears, is finally about to reach the coveted harbor known as the Sprint Cup championship.

Roger Penske, who earned his nickname for his success as a worldwide captain of industry, is without question one of the greatest car owners in the history of motorsports. He has won 23 national racing titles in his lengthy career, including 12 in the IndyCar Series. He owns 15 trophies for winning the prestigious Indianapolis 500, all aligned on display in a neat row at Penske Racing headquarters.

Still, there is a hole in The Captain's racing ship. It certainly isn't big enough to sink all his other accomplishments, but it is a hole that he undoubtedly would love to fill. Despite having equipped drivers for nearly 1,400 Cup starts and earning 73 Cup victories, Penske has never captured the series championship.

In fact, other than a couple of strong runs by Rusty Wallace in the early 1990s, he really hasn't even been close. His phenomenal IndyCar success never translated over to the Cup Series, where his team always seemed to be one step behind the likes of Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs and Jack Roush.

Now, however, Penske is one race away from forever plugging that hole. His driver Brad Keselowski has a 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the Chase standings heading into Sunday's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If Keselowski finishes 15th or better, he will win the title no matter what Johnson does, and Keselowski has not finished worse than 11th since the Bristol race in August.

So barring a wreck or equipment problem on Sunday, Keselowski should secure the 75-year-old Penske his first Cup championship, something such drivers as Wallace, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch were unable to accomplish.

"We are one race away from doing something that no team has been able to do, and that is give Roger Penske the Cup championship he deserves," Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said earlier this week. "When you look at all the success Penske Racing has had in motorsports, not just on the NASCAR side, but all the different series and success and championships, things they've accomplished, it sets quite a standard. I think everybody respects what they've been able to accomplish here. If we could go on to win the Sprint Cup championship, that would be really great."

Like any good captain, Penske exudes a calm, stoic demeanor. He speaks in a steady voice and doesn't show a lot of emotion in public. So in recent weeks, as he's been asked what it would mean for him to finally secure that elusive Cup championship, Penske has not been one to demonstrate much introspection about the possibility.

"I look up to folks like Hendrick and Joe Gibbs and Childress and Roush, the other teams that have been so good here," Penske said recently. "We've never had a chance to get to the top. We were close a couple times with Rusty. This competition is just very, very tough. There are a lot of smart people, a lot of experience.

"I think you just have to build it. I see how these other guys have done it. They haven't done it overnight. When you look at Brad, he and Paul have been able to attract the people that are giving us the performance on and off the track. Certainly the guys back at the shop. There are so many people pulling on this. Their may be people no one knew about three or four years ago, but we sure know about them in our shop. To me that made the difference."

Penske has been involved in auto racing since the late 1950s, when he got his start as a driver. He did well enough behind the wheel that in 1961 he was named Sports Illustrated's Sports Car Club of America Driver of the Year. But Penske realized his true talents were in the world of business, and he amassed a fortune through a string of car dealerships -- beginning with a Cadillac dealership in Philadelphia -- and other ventures.

He formed Penske Racing in 1965 and initially concentrated almost solely on open-wheel racing. He dabbled in NASCAR in the 1970s, winning his first race in the series in 1973 with Mark Donohue as the driver. He picked up four more victories with Bobby Allison behind the wheel. But the majority of his focus remained on the IndyCar circuit, and by 1980 he had gotten out of NASCAR entirely.

It wasn't until 1991 that Penske returned to stock car racing, and he demonstrated right away that he had championship aspirations, hiring 1989 Cup champ Rusty Wallace to be his driver. The pairing got off to a tremendous start, winning 18 races in the 1993 and '94 seasons and finishing second and third, respectively, in the point standings.

Things were not quite the same after that, however. Wallace continued to win at least one race every year through the 2000 season, but he never again seriously contended for the title. In the ensuing decade, both Newman and Busch provided Penske with several Cup highlights, including Newman's victory in the 2008 Daytona 500. Still, that Cup championship always remained on the horizon, in sight but seemingly out of reach.

Then, in 2009, along came Keselowski, a brash and confident young driver who came right out and told Penske that he wanted to drive for him, and he had a lofty goal in mind. "He said, 'Look, I want to help you win a championship,'" Penske recalled. "We win as a team, we lose as a team, and that's what Brad told me when we got together. He said, 'I want to help you build a championship team.'"

Three years later, Penske and Keselowski -- The Captain and his young first mate -- are on the verge of achieving that goal. It has not always been smooth sailing, but now at long last it appears that Penske is about to pull into the home port of the Sprint Cup championship.

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