Team Penske has been the NASCAR’s best team to start the 2017 season. The two-car outfit has seen Brad Keselowski win twice, Joey Logano take the trophy Sunday at Richmond, and has collected 15 top-10 finishes in 18 starts. Satellite teammate Ryan Blaney, driving for the Wood Brothers, is not far behind them, sitting 12th in the standings and on the precipice of making a playoff run.
It’s clear this team has speed. But how are they doing it?
Questions have been raised this week after Logano’s win was labeled an “encumbered finish” by NASCAR after failing Thursday’s post-race inspection. Officials found problems with the rear suspension, enough to dock Logano 25 driver points, Penske 25 owner points and strip the win from counting to make the playoffs. Crew chief Todd Gordon, incurring a $50,000 fine, also will be suspended for the next two Cup Series races; Miles Stanley will replace him.
That’s the second major violation for Penske in as many months. Keselowski, after a fifth-place finish at Phoenix, was found to have a weight-related problem in the rear of the car in the post-race inspection. The consequences? He loses 35 driver points, 35 owner points, and crew chief Paul Wolfe for three races (who was fined $65K).
The team is challenging the Keselowski penalty; a final appeal will be heard Tuesday. But they haven’t challenged the Logano one, willing to ride out the two races without Gordon. Assuming NASCAR prevails in the Keselowski case that means Penske has racked up well over $100,000 in fines, crew chief suspensions that total roughly a quarter of the season to date, and have a win with an asterisk attached.
If this team were Hendrick Motorsports, back in the days where Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson dominated the sport there would be a fan outcry. There was one year the No. 24 and No. 48 cars were found with bodywork issues at Sonoma, leading to technical violations that led to $100,000 fines and crew chief suspensions. You would think there would have been riots in the streets.
This time? The sport seems to be offering a collective shrug. None of the penalties will keep Penske from the playoffs; Keselowski and Logano seem completed unfazed. It seemed more people were ticked off with using the word “encumbered” to describe their violation than anything else.
Is it because people view these penalties as the cost of doing business these days? Does NASCAR have so little gray area that fans assume there will be mess-ups every now and then? Is it because of the sport’s laser inspection system, which has reduced the margin of error to be so miniscule, that the definition of cheating has changed? Or does Penske not have the same type of history as Hendrick, whose star crew chief Chad Knaus once got suspended on the eve of a Daytona 500?
Either way, in my book two penalties by two different cars shows Penske is clearly stretching the limits. Fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on you. And the fact Logano had a similar type of failure shows NASCAR’s slap on the wrist isn’t stopping them from trying.
What will happen if they’re caught a third time?
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Behind Penske’s 1-2 finish at Richmond was a surprising Stenhouse in fourth. Late pit strategy got him there but it was still a strong comeback after the Roush Fenway Ford wrecked early on in the 400-lap race. Stenhouse has now earned back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time in four years. (And you thought girlfriend Danica Patrick was bad!) Could RFR be turning things around? Teammate Trevor Bayne sits in playoff position too heading to Talladega, a place both he and Stenhouse have performed well.
Who’s at the Back: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The positive attention from Earnhardt’s retirement news did little to boost on-track performance. Richmond was a mess; teammate Jimmie Johnson even unintentionally wrecked him. Earnhardt has three finishes of 30th or worse in the last four races, two DNFs and sits 60 points outside playoff position heading to Talladega. It’s not quite a must-win scenario this weekend, but the team needs to get itself together. Fast.
Team Penske, Team Penske, Team Penske. See above.
Carl Long Motorsports announced this week they’ll attempt at least the Cup Series race at Kansas next weekend in a No. 66. The move comes as NASCAR continues to suffer from fields of less than 40 cars although 42 were entered at ‘Dega this weekend.
John Andretti made the news this week as his fight with colon cancer went public. The former Cup and IndyCar driver has a stage 4 condition that is being treated with aggressive surgery and chemotherapy. Prayers and best wishes to the Andrettis as John fights to be cured.
NASCAR by the Numbers
First laps led all season Sunday by Matt Kenseth after failing to lead a lap in the first eight races. Kenseth wound up 23rd after tire problems late.
Wins in the last five races by Team Penske at Talladega. Such dominance is notable at a track known for parity on the NASCAR circuit.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Team Penske has been the focus of this column and they’ll be the focus at Talladega. They’ve won four of the last five (see above) and Joey Logano led 16 laps at the Daytona 500. Pseudo teammate Ryan Blaney (a dark horse in lower tiers) ran second in that Great American Race. At a track that’s equivalent to Russian Roulette, big wrecks make nothing guaranteed but with a little luck, a 1-2-3 by the Penske cars would be no surprise.
Calling Dale Earnhardt Jr.! Earnhardt has six wins here, more than at any other track at a place where the stands will be overflowing with No. 88 gear Sunday. There’s no question the plate race specialist has what it takes to get to the front of the draft. But can Earnhardt dodge his dodgy luck? Last spring, he wound up dead last after getting involved in an early wreck. And despite recent Daytona success, he’s visited Victory Lane at ‘Dega just once since 2004.
This tier is a gold mine for one-time starts, the parity of restrictor plates ensuring a shot at a solid finish. Landon Cassill has had a top-five here with an underfunded team. Elliott Sadler, with years of Cup experience, is driving for a part-time Tommy Baldwin Racing effort putting all their focus into these races. David Ragan, a former ‘Dega winner, is back with the team, Front Row Motorsports, where he accomplished that near-impossible feat back in 2013. All are solid picks.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegas Insider has Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a slight favorite at 8/1. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano follow right behind at 9/1 and then it’s Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
What I Think
I think in this age of parity it’s anyone’s race at Talladega. It’s a great place for a driver to get his first win and I’ll edge towards Ryan Blaney taking down the field in a crazy finish.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)