It wasn’t pretty. In fact, the first segment of the All-Star race was so ugly for Kurt Busch that he had to rely on a free-pass just to get back on the lead lap before limping to a 13th-place finish. His Penske teammate Brad Keselowski took four lucky dogs and still finished one lap down after racing his way into the event by finishing second in the Sprint Showdown. It was a dismal, painful night for Dodge’s flagship team. The only saving grace is that it’s a non-points event-an exhibition race.
Except the run they had Saturday night has been the rule, not the exception lately. 2011 started off looking like Busch was going to contend for a second championship to go with his 2004 title. After winning the Budweiser Shootout to kick off Speedweeks, Busch won his Gatorade Duel, finished fifth in the Daytona 500, and would end a race no lower than ninth in the next three races.
And then the wheels fell off.
Busch finished 17th at Fontana. Then he ran 16th at Martinsville before rebounding for a tenth-place at Texas. Busch has not finished in the top 10 since, posting four finishes of 18th, 22nd, 27th, and 14th through Dover. The defending winner of the All-Star race, Busch struggled mightily in the event, at one point lamenting that he would like to see the car in the fence just to put an end to the miserable run. And if the wheels weren’t already off, Busch took the rest of the car to pieces, berating his crew in multiple events, on one notable occasion lamenting that the car resembled “a monkey ****ing a football,” among other choice words. During the All-Star race, Busch told his spotter to sit back and have a drink because they weren’t racing anyone, and later added, “I don’t care, I just want it backed in the fence,” when asked about possible adjustments to fix the car. In the latter event, Busch sounded so resigned that it was almost painful.
And Busch’s behavior toward his team is not only unbecoming, but it serves no purpose. It doesn’t motivate his team; they work as hard as they can already. There’s a scene in the movie _Cars_ where Lightning McQueen berates his pit crew until they quit on him midrace, leaving him to finish on his own. Busch’s repeated tirades on the radio smack of this scene, to the point where it’s really a surprise that none of them has walked away to greener pastures. It’s ugly behavior on the driver’s part, certainly not the conduct of a champion driver. Especially when things really aren’t _that_ bad.
But team chemistry is important, and Busch and the No. 22 team clearly don’t have it going on as they head into the long, hot summer stretch that brutalizes even the strongest competitors. There’s time to stop the bleeding; Busch is still ninth in points, in position to make the Chase with 15 races still to go. The team, and Busch in particular, need to focus on what they are capable of doing each week. If that’s not winning, fine. Make it about top 10 finishes and improving each week. That mindset has a better shot at making the Chase than the cruel defeatist attitude that Busch is bringing to the table in his frustration. For Busch, the season is salvageable if only he can see that and take responsibility for his part in it by communicating his needs effectively to his team instead of criticizing their every move.
For Keselowski, the season might not be so fixable. Mired in 24th in points, Keselowski has a single top 5 finish this year, and no other finish better than 13th. That’s far below expectations for the driver’s second full Cup season, to the point where you have to wonder about his job security. Paired with his former Nationwide crew chief, Paul Wolfe, this year, Keselowski expected and was expected to produce results more similar to his 2010 Nationwide campaign in which he racked up six wins and 26 top 5s. While those numbers are a little unrealistic for a Cup sophomore, it shouldn’t be this bad.
As an organization, Penske Racing has never been the powerhouse that other organizations like Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway Racing are, but they always won races and were a championship threat with Rusty Wallace in the 1990’s. Roger Penske knows how to race; his IndyCar stats are enviable. But this organization is falling apart under his nose. Perhaps being the only team running Dodges is proving to be a fruitless endeavor if the cars aren’t providing the manufacturer with enough information to improve them. Perhaps it’s the mix of personnel-neither of his drivers has the reputation of being a particularly great team player.
Whatever it is, the organization has a window of opportunity to turn it around, but that window is closing fast on a team trying to stay relevant among the four-car teams that are at the forefront of today’s NASCAR. It’s not too late…yet. But it soon will be.
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