Mooresville, N.C., has long been considered the main hub of stock car racing. But just north of Race City, USA, the scenery begins to look better suited for farming or raising cattle than building championship racecars. If you were to drive down Mazeppa Road, there’s a good chance you’d fly right past the narrow, unassuming side road, marked only with a green street sign.
But down that lane sits a massive technological superplex. It is the home to an organization that has been churning out winning stock cars since 1973. In fact, a Penske car has won at least one Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race every year since 1991. The only reason that the streak isn’t longer? Prior to 1991, Penske hadn’t fielded a Cup car in over 10 years. While it’s safe to say excellence is the standard at many racing organizations, it doesn’t really need to be said down Penske Way. It’s simply understood.
For Team Penske, the 2017 season began with the usual objectives: win races, perform during the playoffs and send both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a shot at the championship. For one, the season aligned perfectly with this blueprint. For the other, 2017 provided a stunning blow given the goals that had been laid out.
Keselowski provided the team its only Cup championship to date in 2012, piloting the flagship No. 2, which for many years was the only car in the stable. However, the year didn’t really start out in the most positive way. Keselowski was involved in an accident during the Daytona 500. The DNF left him 27th at the conclusion of the event. Still, driver and team rebounded in masterful fashion, scoring their first win of 2017 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in week two.
Three more top fives followed, sandwiched by another victory for Keselowski at Martinsville Speedway. A bit of a swoon struck afterward, with Keselowski finishing better than ninth only twice from the Charlotte Motor Speedway race in May through Kentucky Speedway in July. Keselowski plummeted from third to eighth in the standings, primarily due to four 30-something runs during the summer. The two victories set the driver and team up in the fourth position as the playoffs began.
Top-10 finishes got the No. 2 through round one. A less-than-impressive 15th at Charlotte was enough to make everyone a little nervous heading into Talladega Superspeedway. But Keselowski once again demonstrated his restrictor plate prowess, grabbing yet another win.
Thanks to circumstances beyond their control, Keselowski and co. inherited the fourth and final spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead. Despite a valiant effort, their seventh-place finish was only enough to land the team fourth place in the final points standings.
Logano began the year on a bit of a high note. His sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500 kicked off a streak of eight top-six finishes in the first nine races. The No. 22 Shell Ford team capped the run with a victory at Richmond Raceway in May. The win was Logano’s second at Richmond and locked him into the playoffs.
Or so we thought.
It was discovered during post race inspection that the car had an unapproved rear suspension. The win was deemed encumbered, and Logano would receive no benefit from it toward his pursuit of the title. Additionally, Logano’s crew chief Todd Gordon was fined and suspended for two races.
For a driver who won a total of 14 Cup races over the previous three years, it wasn’t a huge concern at the time, but it probably should have been. Logano finished 32nd and 37th in the two races that Gordon was suspended. It began a disastrous run where Logano finished better than 12th only three times in a 16-race stretch.
Logano came back to Richmond with five winless drivers ahead of him in the standings. Knowing only the top three would get into the postseason, he would need a win (the unencumbered kind) to advance.
Logano gave it everything he had, but the runner-up finish ensured that he did not make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. A modest finish to the year resulted in only one additional top-five finish, leaving the No. 22 a disappointing 17th at year’s end.
If we’ve seen anything from Team Penske over the years, it’s resilience. While 2017 may not have gone quite according to plan, anticipate this organization will rebound in a big way. The disappointment will be a speck in the rearview mirror by the time the haulers roll into Daytona in February. It will rise again, be competitive and challenge for victories and championships.
After all, that’s the Penske way.