Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano challenge Hendrick Motorsports atop NASCAR hierarchy
After playing second fiddle to Chevrolet and powerhouse NASCAR organization Hendrick Motorsports for a decade, Ford Racing seems to have found its groove with four consecutive race wins in the Cup Series. And it’s led by a face familiar to the sport but new to Ford’s roster.
Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, who won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship while driving for Dodge in its final season in NASCAR, is hitting on all cylinders. The 30-year-old driver and crew chief Paul Wolfe have reeled off two dominating victories in the past three weeks, with wins at Kentucky Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Further, since the beginning of June, their No. 2 team has recorded five runs of third or better in seven races.
“I think in a lot of ways we’re stronger than (2012),” Keselowski said after Sunday’s win in Loudon, N.H. “I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before. We had tremendous speed today, and I think there’s potential left. So that’s all very encouraging to me.
“I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now. I think some of last year’s struggles put me in a spot to work harder and become a better race car driver, and I think we’re combining all those things and we’re seeing the fruits of that labor with, like I said, more to come.”
Traditionally, Ford’s Cup success was dependent on Roush Fenway Racing and drivers such as Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. However, it has not enjoyed a championship season since Busch won the inaugural Chase for the Championship in 2004. The company’s future performance is also in question, as Edwards is expected to bolt at season’s end, while Biffle’s contract status hangs in limbo.
Enter Team Penske. After a year of acclimation in 2013 when the organization switched to a new manufacturer, a new engine supplier and welcomed a new driver-crew chief combo in Joey Logano and Todd Gordon, it’s overtaken RFR as the Ford flag bearer. Keselowski and Logano have combined for five wins in the season’s 19 events and are locks for NASCAR’s postseason.
“We had to understand the aerodynamics, the new package, putting together an engine program with Roush-Yates where we were not the ones that made the calls every day,” team owner Roger Penske says. “We have a team that is working together, I think is very transparent with Ford what we’re doing, and at the end of the day, I’d have to say it was the right move.”
Keselowski echoes the sentiment and, having gone toe-to-toe with six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the past and won, understands that it takes something extra to win the Chase.
“We’re executing, which is really important. We have a lot of momentum and I think we have a lot of potential still left in our team that we’ve got to keep working to get to because everybody is going to turn it up a notch when the Chase comes. We need to have another gear to grab to be able to run for a championship here in 2014.”
To get that championship, Keselowski and Logano will have to go through Hendrick Motorsports’ vaunted four-car team of Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Prior to Ford’s current four-race win streak — its longest since 2001 — Hendrick’s trio of Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt tallied five consecutive victories over a commanding early-summer stretch.
At the time, Keselowski quipped that Hendrick’s engine department could be as much as a year ahead of the competition. It seems apparent, though, that Team Penske has found something that has shifted the balance of power — a combination of horsepower gains and aerodynamic know-how.
Heading into an off-weekend before a crown-jewel showdown with HMS at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Keselowski says his team will have the luxury of enjoying the recent success:
“For me personally (and) I know for the team, to have about eight days to really soak it in before we head off to Indy, I think that’s a real pleasure for us and something that we can enjoy — and obviously a little bit of rest is never a bad thing.
“I think we’re close, but I want to keep pushing, and I’m committed to getting another championship. I know Roger and Paul sitting next to me are committed to it, and we want to make it happen.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.