Racing to the Point · Brett Poirier · Tuesday August 20, 2013
Let’s take a look at Roger Penske’s fleet of NASCAR drivers.
The first guy’s aggression and temperament was sure to hold him back despite his immense talent. The second guy couldn’t cut it with one of the best team’s in the sport and was destined to go down in history as a bust. The third guy was one of the greatest drivers to ever buckle into an IndyCar, who decided to give that up to epically fail in his first NASCAR attempt, and the fourth guy couldn’t deal with the pressure of being with a top-tier team, so he took Adderall, failed a drug test and was fired, surely to never get a chance with a quality team again.
Penske sure knows how to pick em’.
The first guy, Brad Keselowski, is the defending Sprint Cup champion. The second guy, Joey Logano, is Sprint Cup’s most recent winner and is making a Chase bid. The third guy, Sam Hornish Jr., is the Nationwide Series points leader after recording three consecutive podium finishes. The fourth guy, AJ Allmendinger is the Nationwide Series’ most recent winner, and has won in both of his NNS starts this season.
High risk has come with big reward at Penske Racing. Who else but Penske would have taken a chance on all four of those drivers? The man with a net worth of $1.2 billion, according to Forbes, didn’t accumulate his wealth by playing it safe, and he isn’t building his NASCAR teams that way, either.
Keselowski was on the pathway to Hendrick Motorsports as a Junior Motorsports driver in the Nationwide Series, but Hendrick didn’t have a spot for him and teams weren’t exactly lining up for Keselowski, thinking he was the next great thing. Despite showing his talent in Nationwide, he showed a greater knack for getting under the skin of other drivers because of his aggression, particularly Sprint Cup drivers Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin.
Remember when Edwards flipped Keselowski into the fence at Atlanta during his rookie year in Cup or when Edwards turned him hard into the outside wall coming to the checkered flag in the Gateway Nationwide race (both 2010)? That was sure to be the story of Keselowski’s career. He finished 25th in the Sprint Cup standings and posted two top 10s in 36 races. He was clearly the wrong choice to fill the seat of Ryan Newman, who won 13 races with that team. Penske saw something, though, and stuck with Brad.
Logano was the Nationwide star who couldn’t drive a Cup car before Penske took a chance on him. Gibbs put Logano in a Cup car way too early because of Tony Stewart’s exit and then decided he wasn’t ever going to develop into the driver they expected before his 23rd birthday. You would think that a team that has reaped the rewards of the Kyle Busch story would see it unveiling again in front of their faces.
For those of you who haven’t drawn comparisons between the two drivers, here they are. Busch was 19 years old during his rookie year at Hendrick. In his first three seasons, he totaled four wins. Then at age 22, Hendrick let Busch go to bring Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the fold — and his two wins in six seasons — and Busch went to Gibbs where he won eight races that year and broke out as one of the most talented drivers in the sport.
Logano was 18 when he started his first full season with Gibbs. He won two races in four years before Gibbs moved him aside to bring in Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is an elite driver, so it’s hard to argue the move, but Gibbs should’ve tried harder to keep Logano. Then at age 22, Logano was given another chance at another top-tier team, Penske Racing. He isn’t going to win eight races this year, but no doubt we are seeing a spark out of Logano that we hadn’t seen at Gibbs.
Hornish has been the one Nationwide regular who can seem to at least give the Cup drivers a run for their money on Saturdays. Hornish was about as consistent as Denny Hamlin is now during his first stint in Cup. He is a completely different driver now. He has 10 top 5s and 17 top 10s in 22 starts this season.
Proof of how far he has come could be in the last two road-course events. Hornish contended for wins in both. Drivers who come from other series seem to strive on road courses. But Hornish’s Achilles heel in IndyCar was turning left and right. He was a sub-par driver at best on the road courses. He apparently needed to come to NASCAR to figure them out. And he apparently just needed a second shot at NASCAR to figure it out. Hopefully, it leads to another chance in Cup because he’s earned it.
Allmendinger may have earned it, too. Where would he be without Penske? In some alley eating garbage and calling himself Larry? Well, probably not, but he wouldn’t be winning Nationwide races or be anywhere near the radar of Cup teams as they think about next year. Unlike some other sports, there isn’t much tolerance for even minor drug offenses in NASCAR, and after he was suspended by the governing body and fired by Penske, many of us — myself included — thought that was end of the road for Allmendinger.
It wasn’t. His success with Penske and Phoenix Racing opened the door at JTG/Daugherty Racing, and if a better team doesn’t come knocking before the end of the season, I’d be shocked if Allmendinger wasn’t full-time in the No. 47 next year in Cup.
With AJ’s new perspective and the talent he has shown this season, Penske may have a hard time letting go. If he does, it’ll be interesting to see who The Captain picks up next — Juan Pablo Montoya? Alex Rodriguez?
It’s hard not to root for an underdog, and Penske Racing has an entire driver lineup of them. Where would any of those four drivers be if Penske hadn’t scooped them up, or stayed loyal to them through their struggles?
And it’s been a lot of fun watching them dominate NASCAR the last two weeks.
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