Followers of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series had three names in mind when considering who would be celebrating a championship on Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.
It was with good reason. Harvick and Busch led the series in wins with eight apiece and finished in the top 5 in 23 and 22 of the 36 races, respectively. Truex, the defending champion, had four wins and 20 top-5’s of his own. Furthermore, all three had won titles before.
So it was understandable that Team Penske’s Joey Logano was overlooked much of the playoffs, even heading into Homestead as the fourth wheel on what many considered a three-car showdown.
But in the end it was Logano hoisting the 68-pound trophy for Mooresville-based Penske — one of several accomplishments that made Team Penske North State Journal’s Pro Team of the Year for 2018.
It was a big year at Penske.
On May 23, it was announced Roger Penske, the 81-year-old architect of the racing empire, had been elected to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2019. It was the latest honor for the legendary owner who 20 years earlier was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and had won four IndyCar Series titles and a NASCAR Cup championship in 2012.
The team captured its 17th Indianapolis 500 four days later when Will Power won his first race there, becoming the 12th different driver to pilot a Penske car to Victory Lane at the Brickyard.
“I’m just so thrilled, 17 wins,” Penske said following the win. “Now I have to worry about 18. I’m not going to look back, I’ll look forward. We have to be back next year.”
It turns out Penske had more to accomplish at Indy in 2018.
For all the success Team Penske had at Indianapolis, it had never won Cup racing’s Brickyard 400 in 24 tries since the track started hosting the series in 1994.
Brad Keselowski — who won Penske its other Cup title back in 2012 — snapped the drought in September by winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That was the 499th for Team Penske, and No. 500 wasn’t far behind. Fifty-two years after the team won the first race it ever entered — the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona — Keselowski got the team’s 500th with his Cup win at Las Vegas.
“Reaching 500 wins is really more proof of what racing means to Roger and everyone in the organization,” said Rick Mears, who won four Indianapolis 500’s driving for Penske. “It shows their continued dedication to the sport and how much Roger loves it and it’s still so important to him.”
Then came Logano’s upset at Homestead — one few saw coming but the 28-year-old expected.
“Honestly, the last six or seven weeks we’ve led a lot more laps, we’ve won a lot of stages, won a race, was fast at Kansas, was fast at Texas, you know what, I think we’re the favorite now to win,” Logano said ahead of the winner-take-all race, drawing raised eyebrows from his competition and race fans.
That race win was at Martinsville, where Logano bumped Truex out of the way on the final lap to clinch a spot in the final four at Homestead — a move the defending champion didn’t appreciate.
“He won the battle, but he’s not going to win the damn war,” a heated Truex said following the Martinsville race. “I’m just not going to let him win [the championship]. I’m going to win it.”
But at Homestead it was Logano taking the checkered flag to win his first title and Truex finishing second. The win also gave Team Penske its first victory at Homestead. Team Penske has now won at all of the Cup series’ active tracks.
The team then capped its season with a Supercars championship by New Zealand’s Scott McLaughlin — Penske’s first title in the series since it took majority control of the former Dick Johnson Racing in 2014.
McLaughlin is just the latest driver to become part of the Penske legacy, one that includes Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Ryan Blaney, Mario Andretti, three members of the Unser family, Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish and countless others drivers plus all the people behind the scenes.
“This is probably the most successful season we’ve had in 52 years, if you can believe it,” Penske said at the NASCAR Cup Series award ceremony in late November. “I’ve been around a long time.”
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