Did You Notice?… Team Penske has gone from 2021 championship contender to a team that’s struggling to keep up? A slow unraveling at Ford’s top organization this season has taken place since news broke Brad Keselowski would be leaving the team in 2022 to become an owner/driver at Roush Fenway Racing.
When that story broke, on May 18, the team was three weeks removed from a Keselowski victory at Talladega Superspeedway. Joey Logano was fourth in the standings, Ryan Blaney sixth and Keselowski ninth; all of them had won and clinched a spot in the NASCAR playoffs.
More importantly, Penske was step-for-step with Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. Thirteen races into the season, those teams appeared evenly matched as a 2021, ownership-level version of NASCAR’s Big 3.
2021 NASCAR Cup wins through 13 races
Joe Gibbs Racing: 5
Hendrick Motorsports: 4
Team Penske: 3
Front Row Motorsports: 1
Fast forward to the end of June. Penske is stuck on those three victories as the last six races have been won by Hendrick or Gibbs. Their trio of drivers have maintained consistency, in particular Logano, but stop short of running up front. They’ve led 76 laps total during this stretch, with 31 coming from Keselowski during the Pocono Raceway event this past Sunday (June 27). In that race, a fuel mileage finish left the No. 2 Ford in first for an extended period while strategy played out.
Logano (2021 season): 1 win, 7 top 5s, 12 top 10s, 10.5 average finish.
Since May 18: 6 starts, 0 wins, 2 top 5s, 5 top 10s, 8.5 average finish.
Blaney (2021 season): 1 win, 3 top 5s, 9 top 10s, 13.6 average finish.
Since May 18: 6 starts, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 3 top 10s, 14.7 average finish.
Keselowski (2021 season): 1 win, 6 top 5s, 7 top 10s, 13.2 average finish.
Since May 18: 6 starts, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 2 top 10s, 13.5 average finish.
The biggest step backward has actually come from Penske’s satellite team, Wood Brothers Racing, where Matt DiBenedetto‘s crew chief Greg Erwin was fired after five straight finishes outside the top 10. Matty D has gone from the final playoff spot, 12 points above the cutline in early May, to 60 points behind it. There’s no clear indication DiBenedetto will be retained, in any capacity, for 2022; sources tell Frontstretch Penske must state their intentions by Aug. 1.
In the midst of sorting that out, there’s another departure announced this week: Blaney’s crew chief Todd Gordon said he’ll retire after the season. Gordon, who won the 2018 Cup championship with Logano, expressed a desire to spend more time with family.
That means two teams minimum within the Penske camp will be changing up a key role in 2022. Matty D getting kicked out would make it three, and as of now, Austin Cindric is scheduled to take over the No. 21. Cindric was announced for the ride last fall, making Matty D a lame duck before Keselowski’s news broke.
Interesting enough, Cindric’s the only driver to win since Keselowski/RFR entered the picture. His fourth victory of the season at Pocono gave the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion a 101-point lead in the current standings. It’s why people think he’s a good bet to wind up in the No. 2, not the No. 21, as Team President Tim Cindric reshapes the organization for 2022.
Tim, of course, is Austin’s dad. How will Cindric’s placement work next year, and how will people react to him jumping into such a key role at one of motorsport’s largest organizations?
“I’ve done it for the last four years, at least he and I, so I think we have a good process,” Cindric told Frontstretch’s Zach Sturniolo of the family connection. “For him, whenever my name comes up in a meeting, he leaves. Past that, I go about my business and obviously try and win races.
“I think we have a good balance on the team. The guys that I work with on a daily basis are quite comfortable with that, and we’ve obviously been able to overcome it if we had to, at any stages, and had success.”
For their part, Penske knows they’re behind, a struggle to win that also extends into INDYCAR (0-for-9 this season as former driver Helio Castroneves captured the Indianapolis 500). Over in NASCAR, their driving corps has been open about the sudden burst of speed that’s left Hendrick and Gibbs a step ahead.
“They beat us on power and fuel mileage,” Keselowski said after finishing third Sunday. “We have a lot of work to do to keep up with those guys.”
“Wreck ‘em, I guess,” Blaney said to laughter when asked how the team could beat Hendrick. “They’re on top of their game right now, obviously. I thought we got closer at Texas [Motor Speedway] in the All-Star Race. I thought our three cars could run with them at the end.”
That was just before the race at Nashville Superspeedway. Blaney crashed out of that event, then recovered at Pocono (fifth, sixth) only for the news to break about his crew chief retiring. It’s the type of instability we don’t often see within the walls of 84-year-old Penske’s program.
There’s enough smoke here it bears watching as Silly Season continues to unfold.
Did You Notice? … The charter market continues to heat up? Rumors are building a mid-tier NASCAR team may be considering a selloff as teams like Trackhouse Racing, GMS Racing, JR Motorsports and 23XI Racing have entered the buyer’s market. We could know who that is as early as today (June 30) at 2 p.m. ET, when Trackhouse is making a major announcement. They’re currently without a charter for 2022, as they’re leasing one for 2021 that’s now headed to Kaulig Racing.
Right now, here’s what appears to be safe when it comes to charters.
Hendrick Motorsports (4): Nothing happening here.
Kaulig Racing (2): They purchased two charters for 2022.
Joe Gibbs Racing (4): Frankly, they need another one for Ty Gibbs at this rate.
Roush Fenway Racing (2): Adding Keselowski makes it unlikely they’re selling off a charter.
23XI Racing (1): They’re looking to expand, not sell off, their charter in year two.
Spire Motorsports (1): They’ve confirmed they’ll keep their remaining charter in 2022 for Corey LaJoie.
Stewart-Haas Racing (4): Haas has the ability to self-fund, listing his automation company as primary sponsor for most races on Cole Custer’s No. 41. Even if Aric Almirola and sponsor Smithfield leave, a sale seems unlikely here.
Honestly? That’s about all I trust right now, leaving 18! of 36 charters unsettled. Sure, there’s plenty of teams who will be keeping some of their charters on that list. Richard Childress Racing, Penske, even Rick Ware Racing … they’re unlikely to be leaving the garage after this season. But can we say for sure each individual team is set for 2022? Tyler Reddick is on a year-to-year deal with RCR. Ware could be in the market to sell and have at least one charter repossessed for poor performance. Kurt Busch is openly talking to other teams outside Chip Ganassi Racing.
It makes this Silly Season before the Next Gen car wilder than ever. What’s less clear is how much it’s injected additional money into the market. Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the AP $10 million is what a charter costs, which would still feel like a steal compared to the billions it costs to buy MLB, NHL, NFL or NBA franchises.
Earnhardt found the cost steep but, in essence, perhaps that price is driving the market? If the Next Gen car jumpstarts more interest in NASCAR, the values of these spots on the grid will only go up, right?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- SRX posted an early rating of 1.38 million viewers from Eldora Speedway Saturday night (CBS, June 26). That’s the largest audience yet halfway through the six-race all-star series running its first season. To earn an increase two weeks after its debut is impressive; consider NASCAR’s first race of the season (Daytona 500) is always its highest-rate of the year. Compare that to the Cup race at Pocono Saturday, a race that earned just 1.45 million viewers, and co-founder Ray Evernham has to be thrilled with early results. And frankly? So should NASCAR. Hailie Deegan’s second-place finish at Knoxville Raceway was in front of a larger audience than any Camping World Truck Series race this season.
- Yes, Road America is new to the NASCAR Cup schedule. But the last two road course races have seen Logano, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott all finish inside the top five. Elliott led 44 laps at the other road course this season (Daytona International Speedway road course) before a weird caution for rain wiped out his chance to win. So far, tracks people thought might provide a few upsets have seen the cream rise to the top.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.