Updated at: 12/01/2012 1:05 AM
By JENNA FRYER
(AP) LAS VEGAS - At no point in the days leading into NASCAR’s season finale did Roger Penske assume his 40-year wait for a championship would finally end.
Brad Keselowski had the Sprint Cup title well within reach and a decent day would give Penske Racing its first title at NASCAR’s top level. But weird things happen in racing, and the team owner wasn’t taking anything for granted.
And then he slipped, just slightly, admitting two days before the Nov. 18 finale that he’d told his upper management group he was sick and tired of being just another face in the crowd at the season-ending awards ceremony.
"I kid these guys and say, `I don’t want to sit down in the front row anymore, I want to be up on the stage so I see who’s at the party,’" Penske said.
Well, "The Captain" was assured of a spot on the main stage Friday night at Wynn Las Vegas Resort, where the party was very much for Penske.
Penske is the titan of motorsports, the gold standard of open-wheel racing. He’s got 23 championships in various series and 15 Indianapolis 500 victories, but his NASCAR operation never could reach the pinnacle.
Now he’s done it with Keselowski, and the entire industry couldn’t be more pleased for Penske.
"I’ve known Roger Penske since I was a teenager, I have worked with Roger Penske my entire professional life, and it’s really, really exciting for me to know and see Roger because in everything he’s done, he’s done it with high integrity, he’s done it with incredible effort and he’s done it with amazing class," NASCAR chairman Brian France said in an unscripted moment of a speech during one of the Champion’s Week events.
"I couldn’t be more thrilled that Roger, you’re getting your first Sprint Cup championship ... way to go. I’m really impressed."
That’s been the sentiment all week in Las Vegas, where Penske is the toast of the town.
"I think for Roger, as long as he’s been in the sport and as hard as he’s tried and all the championships he’s won in the other series, that everybody likes seeing somebody achieve this because he’s worked so hard for this," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "And he’s such an amazing person, and such a successful person, that a lot of this banquet is around him."
At his pristine car dealership inside the Wynn, he was the center of attention at a reception to celebrate the achievement. Surrounded by sparkling Ferrari’s and Maserati’s, the 75-year-old Penske threw back cold Miller Lite’s as he spent most of the evening hanging out by a virtual racing simulator.
He kept a running order of who he wanted to next drive the simulator, and excitedly noted who logged the fastest laps.
"I’m buying one of these," Penske kept repeating.
One of those to try the simulator and mingle at the party was IndyCar rival Chip Ganassi, who paid his respects to the owner he’s admired his entire career.
"I couldn’t be more happy for Roger because nobody has worked harder and made more effort at trying to do well across all forms of the sport," Ganassi said. "He’s obviously been a big influence of mine over the years. He’s one of the people you would emulate or want to be like, and he has set the bar at a new level. I am happy, I am jealous, I have a lot of awe, a lot of respect and I’m looking forward to now chasing him in another category."
Penske planes have been arriving daily all week as friends, family, employees and longtime associates have been arriving to celebrate. The last arrival was a chartered 747 that brought in almost 250 Penske employees who were treated to a trip to Las Vegas.
That’s the Penske way _ reward everyone because this championship belongs to the entire organization.
"I never realized the power and the impact of this sport, and I’ve been involved in the Super Bowl in Detroit in 2006 and all the noise that goes on with championships, but this is so special," Penske said. "For me, thousands of people have sent me communication. But I walked into my office on Monday morning (after the race) and they had a big banner already they’d made up for the championship. You don’t think about walking into your own place and seeing that. That banner is going to hang in every one of our 1,500 locations around the U.S.
"It was a galvanizing night for us, bringing everyone together and it was a culmination of a lot of people’s hard work. My name happens to be on the building, but I’ll tell you, someone had to help build that building before we could get here."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)