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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Despite Limited Numbers, Penske Dodges Return to Prominence; Notes From Charlotte Test Session Day No. 2

About the same time the 2009 NASCAR season was at its midpoint, there were questions being raised as to the viability of manufacturer involvement in the sport – particularly with regards to Chrysler. I remember sitting in the press room at Michigan last June, and every driver who came in for a briefing mentioned the state of the economy, the trouble faced by the automakers, and how thankful they were to be working with each of the Big Three, “right up the road in Detroit.” One of those drivers was Kurt Busch, who sounded confident that Dodge would be remain in the sport, and reaffirmed their commitment to the brand, and Dodge’s pledged support of Penske Racing.

As a life-long Mopar nut, I thought it to be little more than PR posturing, and a nice way to jingle the keys of the Penske name in front of Toyota. I was certain that we would see Dodge exit as they had in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the last time they were staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. Back then they were able to avoid it, but by 2009, the jig was up, and Uncle Sam had joined forces with the Dodge brothers. With the country in not much of a better position as the automaker it just inherited, I expected there to come an announcement that they were pulling out of NASCAR entirely, and issue a farewell statement that would sound more like a suicide note than a letter of resignation.

Boy was I wrong.

The first five races of 2010 are in the books for the Sprint Cup Series, and one of the hottest teams on the circuit right now is the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge driven by Penske Racing’s Busch. With a win three weeks ago in Atlanta, he appeared to have the Bristol race in hand, having led 278 of 500 laps, only to come home third after having some difficulty negotiating traffic in a late-race restart. The day before however, Justin Allgaier broke through for his first win in the Nationwide Series, holding off teammate and fellow Dodge driver Brad Keselowski for a Penske 1-2 sweep.

The best car didn’t win on Sunday, but Busch has had the best car in more than half the races so far this season. Spurred on by new crew chief Steve Addington, having guided younger brother Kyle to 12 wins in two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, the elder Busch is beginning to regain the form that saw him win 14 races in four seasons with Roush Racing, under the tutelage of crew chief Jimmy Fennig. That combination also took home the inaugural 2004 Nextel Sprint Cup championship, by a scant eight points over Jimmie Johnson.

Conversely, it is the Penske Dodges that have also suddenly roared back to life, performing early this year as they did upon rejoining the sport in 2001. Even in the Camping World Truck Series, veteran Dennis Setzer was in position to win the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona this year, a series in which Dodge had all but abandoned after winning the series title in 2004 and 2005.

With the addition of Keselowski, Penske Racing added about 50 people in the offseason in an attempt to shore up the organization. Keselowski is beginning to get up to speed as well, with a solid top five going in Atlanta until he was Carled with just a few laps to go in the event. A 13th-place showing at Bristol has him 30th in points, which had Atlanta ended the way it should have, he’d be just about ready to crack the top 15. Sam Hornish Jr. has showed flashes of speed, but again seems to suffer trouble at the most inopportune time; this weekend at Bristol was no different, as he had what was almost sure to be a top-10 run.

So while there are but a few Dodges in the garages of NASCAR this season, those of the Penske camp have shown some muscle, and are making the most of their opportunity. With the limited resources available to Dodge, there is but one team with whom they will spend any appreciable amount of time, energy, and resources.

This coupled with Allgaier winning his first race in the Nationwide Series this weekend at Bristol, Penske Racing seems to be righting the Pentastar ship, and potentially paving the way for more teams to make their way back to Moparland. Granted, this comes on the heals of the announcement that Chrysler is off to its worst first quarter ever in 2010, however new partner Fiat is no stranger to motorsports involvement – they own a controlling interest in Ferrari – and recognizes its value and benefit for marketing and promotion.

Later this year when the new Nationwide CoT debuts, the Penske camp will be campaigning Dodge Challengers, as the iconic ponycar will take to the track alongside the Ford Mustang, and the Chevrolet Cama… or wait. Impala. Because Chevrolet has really thought this one through. Even Kurt Busch has been bitten by the Scat Pack bumblebee, as he taken up the sport of NHRA Drag Racing, running a 1970 Challenger in the Super Gas division, running on a 9.90 index in the quarter mile.

As the season rolls on, look for duo of Kurt Busch and Steve Addington to be adding a ton of wins to the Dodge column, and don’t be surprised to see Keselowski sneak one in either. On the Nationwide side, the due of Allgaier and Keselowski will a formidable one, and perhaps one of the few who may be able to break the Gibbs juggernaut of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in NASCAR’s junior series.

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Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Sprint Cup teams completed two days of testing the new spoiler, which will replace the rear wing on the cars starting this week at Martinsville. While the aesthetic improvements were well received and heralded by every driver at the test, the prevailing opinion was that it will probably not have much overall effect on how the cars drive; at least just not yet.

It wasn’t until the afternoon session on Wednesday that cars began to go out in packs of two and three to really see how they would react in traffic. Kurt Busch noted that the wing does exhibit some more drag on the straightaway with its 70-degree angle and extra ten inches of width compared to the wing it replaces, but it has also increased the entry speeds of the corner. Teams were spending much of the time during this test session becoming more acclimated to the tire they’d be running, rather than obsessing over the new appendage on their decklids.

  • Carl Edwards was 32nd fastest with a speed of 181.360 in the Wednesday a.m. test and ranked 20th in the p.m. test. His impression of the spoiler was a positive one just on the basis of looks and fan acceptance but performance-wise was one of indifference. “If I didn’t know that spoiler was back there, I wouldn’t have been able to point to something, especially from the first few laps yesterday and say, ‘hey this feels different’.”
  • Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet was 13th fastest in the a.m. session and 25th in the afternoon with a speeds of 184.875 and 179.581 mph respectively. Gordon says, “The cars don’t have as much side force with the spoilers, yet we’ve gained overall downforce, so I think it’s going to be wash as far what it drives like and feels like; I’m anxious to see what it’s going to feel like in race condition, being around other cars.”
  • Look for the No. 48 team to be just as dominant as they have been all year and with the wing in place. After having won nearly 25% of races in CoT-winged mode, the Lowe’s team was seventh and second fastest in the morning and afternoon sessions on Wednesday, posting speeds of 185.414 and 182.815 mph in the mid-day session.