As the Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, exactly one quarter of the 2012 season remains. Nine races is simultaneously a blink of an eye and an eternity in big time stock car racing. No one knows that better than Brad Keselowski, who sits atop the standings after his win at Chicago last Sunday. The Michiganite has shocked the NASCAR world so many times already that it probably won't come as much of a surprise at all if he wins the title in just his third full season. Still, it would be a historic and momentous accomplishment, not just for Keselowski and Dodge - departing NASCAR after this season - but also for the man fields the No. 2 Miller Lite Chargers that currently stand at the head of the pack.
The name Roger Penske is synonymous with success. Indeed, the legendary car owner has dominated open wheel racing like no one, with an incredible 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500, 12 championships, and over 160 victories with such luminaries as the late Mark Donohue, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, and Al Unser Jr.
While his success in NASCAR hasn't come close to matching those numbers, Penske has enjoyed plenty moments of glory with his full-fendered cars. He won five times in the 1970s, once with Donohue (the last win to date for a so-called "road course ringer") and four more with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, but his team only competed a full season once, with Allison in 1976. They finished fourth in points.
In 1991, Penske returned to stock cars full-time with driver Rusty Wallace and business partner Don Miller each holding a stake in the race team. Wallace - voted into the Hall of Fame earlier this year - won 37 races at the wheel of the No. 2 machine before retiring in 2005. Kurt Busch won eight times in the "Blue Deuce," while Keselowski has won seven times over the past two years. Jeremy Mayfield, Ryan Newman, and Busch also added 18 more wins to Penske's total in his Nos. 12 and 22 cars.
The one thing missing from Penske's resume is a Sprint Cup championship.
He came closest with Wallace in 1993. In one of the most dominant seasons that didn't end in a title, Wallace won a third of the races (10 out of 30) including four of the first eight and five of the last eight, and had 21 top-10 finishes (19 of those in the top-five). Dale Earnhardt equaled Wallace's top-10 total, but had two fewer top-fives and four less trips to victory lane. Yet, when all was said and done, Earnhardt had his sixth championship.
The difference came in those 14 races between Wallace's hot streaks. Riding a three-race win streak entering the ninth race of the year at Talladega, Wallace flipped across the finish line after a nudge from Earnhardt. He finished sixth, but he was badly beaten up in the crash. His luck took a tremendous hit as well. Four of his five total DNFs (he also flipped in the season-opening Daytona 500) came in the next four events, dropping him to fifth in points and nearly 300 back of Earnhardt after 13 races. Wallace won just once - at New Hampshire, no less, in the inaugural Sprint Cup race there - over the next nine races following that dreadful stretch. After coming home third the Southern 500 at Darlington, he still sat 304 points back.
In his next six races, however, Wallace went on a tear. He won at Richmond, then took a controversial victory at Dover the next week after being involved in a restart incident that wrecked Earnhardt and left him 27th. A second at Martinsville was followed by a win at North Wilkesboro, a fourth at Charlotte, and another win at Rockingham. With two races left, Wallace had cut his deficit to just 72 markers. A 19th-place finish at Phoenix, however, ballooned the margin back up to 126 points, and Wallace's dominant victory in the finale at Atlanta could only trim it down to 80 by the time things were all said and done.
The difference between 1993 and 2012 is, of course, the Chase for the Sprint Cup. NASCAR fans hate to hear "if this" and "if that," especially when it comes to the polarizing playoff system. Still, had the Chase been around 19 years ago, Wallace's five-for-10 stretch (with just one finish worse than fourth) to close out the season would have left Earnhardt (no wins and a 27th and a 29th) in the dust despite all the problems he endured in the late spring and into the summer.
If Keselowski can come close to replicating Wallace's run - he's off to a good start after beating Jimmie Johnson last weekend - he very well could make up for the missed opportunity and give Penske that first title at the top level of stock car racing.