Last weekend at Kentucky Speedway, Team Penske did something it had only done once before this year. The organization fielded a second XFINITY Series entry. Ryan Blaney piloted the No. 12 car to an eighth-place finish, while Brad Keselowski wound up 10th in the flagship No. 22 car. In most of this season’s events, only the 22 car has been on track, with Keselowski, Blaney and Joey Logano splitting the driving duties.
All three have had decent results this year, but they have combined for zero wins. It is almost unbelievable to think that, as the XFINITY season reaches its halfway point this weekend, Penske has not won a race. The team has been close a few times, most notably at Daytona in the very first race of the season. But for an organization that went to Victory Lane eight times last season, being close cannot be good enough. Throw in the fact that Keselowski and Logano have been picking up several Sprint Cup victories lately, and the team owner known as The Captain must be puzzled with the goose egg in the win column.
In the last few seasons, Penske has approached the XFINITY Series differently than some of the other Sprint Cup teams. Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing all field multiple cars. Each of those teams has at least two drivers who are competing for the championship. Penske, however, has only one full-time car and employs Cup drivers who are not eligible for the title.
Is it possible that not having a full-time XFINITY driver who races a car every week is hurting Team Penske? On one hand, the insinuation that Penske cannot handle the competition in the series sounds preposterous. Keselowski and Logano have developed into two of the finest drivers in Sprint Cup. Both of them also have more than a few victories to their names (Keselowski has 34 and Logano has 25.)
Moreover, the organization has performed just fine while running one car the past few years. In addition to their eight wins last season, Penske drivers combined for six wins in 2014. Additionally, the No. 22 car has also won the owner points title for three years running.
As for 2016, it has been perfectly clear that JGR got off to a better start than any of the other teams. Nobody has been able to match the speed of JGR’s Toyotas yet, but the momentum could swing in Penske’s direction at any time. The winless spell may prove to be just a bump in the road for the team.
That said, it should still concern Penske how the team got so far behind JGR in the first place. Those two organizations have been the super powers of the XFINITY Series for the last several seasons, but 2016 has looked like a one-team show in most races. Both Keselowski and Logano have admitted that JGR has the upper hand in speed, and the numbers back that up. Keselowski, Logano, and Blaney have combined to lead 209 laps. That is just two more than JGR driver Erik Jones alone, while Kyle Busch has led over 1,000 laps.
It could be tough for Penske to close that performance gap with just one car. It is true that the team has plenty of resources and that Keselowski and Logano know what takes to succeed. However, the overall health of the XFINITY program is not the primary concern for either driver. Their goal is to perform at a high level in Sprint Cup. If the pair perform well in XFINITY races and learn something about a certain track that will help them in the Cup race the following day, so much the better for them. Yet none of Penske’s drivers have a week in and week out vested interest in the XFINITY Series.
The key to better performance for Penske could involve reviving the second team on a full-time basis, and having one driver who runs the car every week and races for the championship. The last time that Team Penske did that was in 2013 with Sam Hornish, Jr. That year, Hornish came only three points shy of winning the championship, while Penske combined for 14 wins between Keselowski, Logano, Hornish, Blaney and AJ Allmendinger.
In fact, having a full-time team is what really helped Penske grow into an XFINITY powerhouse in the first place. Through the 2008 season, Penske had nine wins, six of which came courtesy of Ryan Newman in 2005. The team began fielding a full-time car in 2009 with Justin Allgaier, and then added a second car the following year for Keselowski. Keselowski went on to win the championship, and now the team has accumulated 45 more wins in the last seven seasons.
Penske himself probably realizes all of that and would like to field a second car, but the roadblock to doing so, as always, would be finding a sponsor. That is a problem that has plagued everyone in the series. In a time when sponsors want to ensure a return on their investment, it makes more sense to sign on with a proven talent behind the wheel. Yet the XFINITY Series is at its best when developing young drivers. Unfortunately, a sponsor is not as likely to latch on to an unproven rookie as it might have 15 years ago.
If the opportunity ever arises for Penske to field a second car, the team should pursue it. Between Keselowski, Logano and Blaney, the organization certainly does not lack young talent. However, The Captain will get the most out of his XFINITY program if he has someone chasing the championship.
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