ONE: Outsider perspectives are paying big dividends for Penske Racing
Outside of the restrictor-plate tracks, it’s been a long time since both the No. 2 and No. 12 cars were contending for the win on the same day. But that was the case Sunday at Bristol, with Kurt Busch leading over half of the 500 laps run while Brad Keselowski led twice and managed to stay up front after early pit strategy for track position paid off. At this point in the season, the No. 2 car is looking every bit the Chase contender that it was in 2009, and the No. 12 over the last two weeks has looked the best it has since Ryan Newman wheeled it to the 2008 Daytona 500 title.
What’s the common denominator between these two outfits? They’re being led by the new kids on the block at Penske, personnel brought from the outside into a camp that had grown rather stale. On the one hand, the No. 2 team is now being headed by crew chief Steve Addington, the winningest Cup crew chief over the last two seasons not named Chad Knaus. On the other, there is Jay Guy, who – after a tenure leading Furniture Row Racing while maximizing every scarce resource they had – is proving to have the skill to compete once given the tools he needs to run up front. Of course, having Keselowski in the driver’s seat instead of David Stremme isn’t hurting things, either….
This track record of going to the outside to shake things up is the very same way that Busch returned to Chase contention after the organization picked up Pat Tryson. Penske Racing has always done things their own way: be it their heavy reliance on engineering when Newman was the hottest thing in Cup in 2002 and 2003 or a corporate culture that is different from anything else seen in NASCAR. Unfortunately, that’s led to an organization that’s also had a hard time adjusting when things got off. Busch and Newman were maligned for over a year with handling problems, even running year-old noses to try and improve their cars, while Sam Hornish Jr.‘s team took “crab-walking” to a new extreme with the No. 77 at Charlotte a few years back.
But this time, Penske got it right. They went out there and picked up personnel that know how to make these current cars go fast, and now they’re using each individual strength in order to build the team from the ground up. It’s the perfect triangle of knowledge to build on: Addington’s dealt with perhaps the most demanding driver in racing today (Kyle Busch), Guy’s done plenty with less, and Keselowski brings a perspective from Hendrick Motorsports that good people, and lots of them, are absolutely key.
People called Brad arrogant for suggesting that Roger Penske had to hire tons more staff to compete with Hendrick. Well, Penske listened anyway… and the results are already starting to show.
TWO: Bristol stole Joey Logano’s lunch money
Joey Logano looked to be on top of one of the circuit’s most ferocious bullrings, winning his first career pole on Friday with a car that left him smiling from ear-to-ear at Bristol.
Too bad the joy stopped there.
In the Nationwide Series on Saturday, Logano got absolutely pile-driven by Kevin Harvick on the final lap, losing a top-five finish and apparently all words in the process. Doing his best imitation of teammate Kyle Busch, Logano stormed away from his car without comment as soon as the race was over, unwilling or unable to confront Harvick – a point that ESPN’s commentators harped on.
Sunday was a different story, as Logano just couldn’t get a handle on the No. 20 Toyota. Failing to lead the first lap from the pole, the crew severely over-adjusted their car during the first cycle of pit stops before picking up a flat under green. From there, the day simply crumbled, and the 19-year-old’s first career pole run ended with an ugly 27th-place finish, five laps off the pace. But here’s the kicker: that still was his best career run in Thunder Valley.
So for all the progress that Logano has made as a driver over his first season in Cup, Sunday was a stark reminder that the youngster still has a long way to go on the short tracks that make up five of the 26 races that determine a Chase berth. Looking ahead, Martinsville may very well be the race that determines whether or not this team can credibly hope to make the playoffs, as Logano did score a 12th-place finish in the fall event there one year ago. If he scores a solid top-15 finish in Virginia next week, Bristol may appear as an aberration. But if Sliced Bread goes 0 for 2 on the bullrings to start 2010, it won’t be too early to count the No. 20 team as a pretender, not contender, for a spot in the Chase.
THREE: The last gasp for Robby Gordon Motorsports?
Headed to Martinsville, Robby Gordon and his No. 7 team are now in territory they haven’t been since September 2008: They have to race themselves into the field. Those words can and should strike terror into this organization’s hearts. Who can forget Gordon’s foray into ownership back in 2005, a season that saw him miss so many races that sponsor Jim Beam reportedly asked the driver/owner for a rebate?
The fact that this operation felt the need to partner with BAM Racing, a team that hadn’t even seen the track since 2008, says a lot about why through five races the No. 7 car hasn’t finished better than 22nd. Though Gordon has defied the odds for longer than even his staunchest fans could have imagined, being a single-car operation that has gone through every manufacturer in NASCAR and countless sponsors appears to finally be catching up with the team.
What’s more, though, one can’t help but notice that Gordon’s fire really doesn’t seem to be in NASCAR anymore. Between running more SCORE races than he has since he full-timed that gig back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and all but acknowledging that he will not be in his own cars full-time in 2010, the ever-defiant Gordon seems to have lost a step when it comes to tackling Sprint Cup. Gordon has always had a tremendous passion for off-road racing, but it’s never been something that’s taken focus away from his Cup car. Until now.
As chronicled on Frontstretch last season, Jeremy Mayfield learned the hard way that trying to be an owner/driver without a total, consuming focus on the Sprint Cup ride isn’t possible. If Gordon’s performance, and his ever-expanding off-road schedule is any indication, the most successful owner/driver in recent memory is walking down that same road.
And that may well mean the No. 7 is out of the Top 35 for good.
FOUR: NASCAR comes up empty on start-and-park… again
A few weeks back, I wrote an open letter that praised NASCAR for their decision to begin confiscating the engines of the first teams to bow out without crash damage in a Cup race. Coming on the heels of Dave Blaney‘s car being confiscated at Fontana, it seemed that maybe, just maybe NASCAR couldn’t handle seeing start and park become an epidemic in its premier ranks.
But just as when officials made statements committing to ensure that teams were “on the up and up” at Atlanta last season, the sport proved Sunday their new policy isn’t going to do a damned thing – and that I was an idiot for complimenting them on the matter in the first place.
This Sunday’s Cup race featured as many start-and-parkers as did the Nationwide Series race. And if the actions of Joe Nemechek, Aric Almirola and the Prism gang are any indication, they’re not concerned at all about having their engines taken. If they were, they’d be staying on the track for more than 30 circuits. But that’s not the case. It’s pretty clear that there’s no threat from NASCAR to curb start-and-parking, as evident by the fact that Blaney’s No. 66 bunch (Prism) voluntarily dropped to the back from their third-place starting position, making their intent not to race fully visible.
What a shame. A few weeks ago, I got excited and thought hey, maybe NASCAR is finally doing something about this issue. They’re not. Go figure.
FIVE: Chad Knaus has released the Kraken
No one doubts that Chad Knaus will go down as one of, if not the greatest crew chief in the history of stock car racing. Nonetheless, there is no disputing the fact that the No. 48 team has taken enormous amounts of criticism for becoming dominant only after the Chase format took hold of the Sprint Cup Series. Apparently, that doesn’t sit too well with Mr. Knaus, because the modus operandi of the No. 48 team appears to have changed… they’re not saving anything for September, but instead are winning this week, next week, and as often as humanly possible.
The defending champion has won three of the first five races, including scoring a win at the same bullring that he went out of his way on to race a truck at in an attempt to garner more seat time… during a title run. Right now, his teammate and car owner’s modern-era record of 13 wins in a season is well within reach. Between that and Denny Hamlin‘s 2010 title campaign looking like the biggest flop this side of Green Zone, a five-peat already appears a foregone conclusion.
But make no mistake: this year’s dominance is no accident. If one thing has been learned about the No. 48 bunch, it’s that everything they do is deliberate. Is it really too much of a stretch to think that Knaus has had it up to here with fans and media alike that question and differentiate what he and his team have done in the grand scheme of NASCAR history? That he’s unleashed the hounds on his competitors this season in attempt to shut up every critic, hater and doubter out there?
I think not.