Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Bristol Night Race
Penske Racing has been a multi-car team since the beginning of 1998. Despite making over 1,000 starts in the first 15 years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it had only a single 1-2 finish — and that in itself was rolling snake eyes on a craps table: mastering plate-racing luck in the 2008 Daytona 500.
You’d think with its extensive experience in IndyCar, Penske would take the teamwork approach and run with it. But while other organizations like Hendrick Motorsports prided themselves on sharing information, the Penske shops operated like a modern-day Cold War. For Penske, a good week was when Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman carried out their arguments in private, scuffling at each other’s personalities, instead of dropping passive-aggressive hints through the press. Sharing setups? They were lucky to share the same space on the racetrack without hitting each other.
That was the way racing used to be. But NASCAR evolved and Penske needed to keep up. Over time, a new philosophy was put in place, but the right personnel were not there to execute. Newman was paired with the tempestuous Kurt Busch, then open-wheel convert Sam Hornish Jr., who contributed in the equivalent of a foreign language. Next up was Brad Keselowski, a man of immense talents and ideas but without the cache of consistent success to carry them out. It took Busch’s temper, combined with Keselowski’s rise to prominence, to finally put the latter, a Michigan man with Hendrick-based training, a true place at the operation’s table.
Success led to trust from the hierarchy, as the brass realized a single-car success story within a multi-car team would be short-lived. The only thing needed next was the right teammate. Hornish, banished to the Nationwide Series, never quite fit Keselowski’s unique, outgoing personality. Busch? A mentor and a cancer all in one. His high-energy replacement, AJ Allmendinger, quickly failed a drug test and suddenly there was an opening with a long list of resumes to fill it. Keselowski, despite heading straight toward a title without a real “sidekick,” became heavily involved, knowing NASCAR’s evolution and the impossibility of a two-car team competing without full cohesion going forward. Whatever selection was made had to be someone he could mold — a younger version of himself with the raw talent to match him inch-for-inch on the track.
Enter Joey Logano. In the span of two seasons, the Joe Gibbs Racing cast off has sliced through his career win total, tripling it from two to six. A pledge to follow Keselowski, become his accomplice and learn the racing world from his eyes has been fulfilled. The 25-year-old, once socially awkward and meek, comes to every media session brimming with the confidence a second chance provides. After his third win of the season at Bristol on Saturday night, he triumphantly proclaimed his team was championship material … and he’s right. Part of a 1-2 finish — the second of Penske’s tenure on the Cup circuit — it’s clear this dynamic duo is in-step both on and off the racetrack.
“Joey and I and we’ve developed a pretty good friendship,” Keselowski said about balancing both drivers’ success heading toward the Chase. “Certainly, we’re both hungry to be winners and there’s a balancing act. (But) I think we’re both legitimate threats to win the championship this year and I’m proud of that.”
Across the garage, Hendrick looms, clearly the best team over the course of the season. Penske is the underdog. But in a sense, that plays right into this team’s hands, the exact role Keselowski likes. And now, he’s got the right guy to play along.
Can they challenge? It’s a tough, uphill climb — at least for this upcoming 10-race playoff. But one thing is for certain: it won’t be 15 years before another 1-2 finish for Penske. I’m not even sure it’ll be another 15 races.
“Through the Gears,” post-Bristol we go …
FIRST GEAR: Penske makes its mark
Penske’s Bristol performance was impressive, with Logano on top of his game after a late-race caution left him sixth with 63 laps left. Armed with fresh rubber on the final restart, recent history said the jig was up: in the spring, Carl Edwards won by using old tires and one less pit stop for track position. In the past, that would have been the kiss of death for a driver that struggled to find the mental focus on-track.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” said Logano. “I didn’t really think about it. I made sure I had a good start there, pass as many cars off the get go as we can, then settling in and start working on the 20 (Matt Kenseth).”
Within 10 laps, Logano was second and then he blew by Kenseth like he was stopped. Leading the final 45 laps, his third win capped off a trifecta sweep for Penske Racing drivers at Bristol: Ryan Blaney won the Nationwide race Friday night while Keselowski triumphed in the Truck Series three days earlier.
“We all contribute,” said Walt Czarnecki, Penske’s Executive Vice President. “We all have the same access to information, the same access to resources, and I think it's really demonstrated that in the performance of the team this year.”
Logano’s victory leaves Penske with six wins, three apiece for him and teammate Keselowski. Only HMS can match it, with the trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson creating a logjam atop the Sprint Cup leaderboard. HMS still seems a step above the rest but if there’s one team that can make a run, at this point it appears to be this two-car tandem.
SECOND GEAR: JGR frustration boils over
Bristol’s dragstrip is called “Thunder Valley,” but the moniker fits the half-mile oval, as well, as it’s a place where tempers routinely boil over. Typically, that frustration is aimed at a competitor, not members of one’s own team. But at Joe Gibbs Racing, a season of frustration has reached its peak. Even Kenseth, the third-place finisher, when questioned after the race acted like he had a 20th-place car and just got lucky. Ignoring crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s order to pit, old tires helped him but also didn’t create warm and fuzzy feelings with his team.
“I just had such a hard time,” Kenseth claimed. “I knew clean air would cover up a lot of problems.”
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin looked despondent after Kevin Harvick sent his No. 11 spinning while fighting for the lead. Hamlin, whose car wound up getting pinged by Earnhardt Jr., watched a potential momentum-building run evaporate. It was the second straight year Hamlin and Harvick have tangled at Bristol, leaving the latter scratching his head on how to fix the problem.
“(Harvick) just thinks he knows everything and probably thought he knew everything again,” Hamlin said in frustration. “I just wish I had some kind of car left so I could show him the favor back.”
Hamlin then complained about the new Bristol track surface, which has narrowed the groove but gotten rave reviews from fans for producing more “old school” racing. It’s a familiar refrain for the veteran; instead of moving on, push those ugly feelings onto somebody else to place the blame.
But the worst of the three scenarios that played out at BMS was that of Kyle Busch, who chalked up his fourth straight finish of 36th or worse. Involved in someone else’s mess early, the No. 18 was a shell of itself most of the evening as the tension between Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers never eased. Parking his damaged car, Busch’s sarcasm got to Rogers on the radio, yelling at his driver to “drive his whiny ass back to the truck.” Communication between the two has been suffering for several weeks, as several mistakes by Busch on track have dropped him to 17th in series points. On Saturday, a pit road speeding penalty left Busch mired in traffic, and that’s when he found himself in someone else’s melee.
The sad thing is while Busch is at fault, it’s he and sponsor M&M’s, who have secure, long-term contracts with JGR’s No. 18. With Edwards coming into the fold in the offseason, don’t be surprised to see a crew chief shakeup with Busch, although at least one rival thinks the organization can get it together by November.
“I think we’ve all got our eyes on all the Gibbs cars,” said Keselowski on Saturday night. “I just don’t see a whole season going by without them having a dominant race car in one section of time. I think we’re all fearful that will happen in the Chase when it counts the most.”
THIRD GEAR: Jamie McMurray’s lost opportunity
For awhile, it looked like Bristol would become another summer Chase Cinderella story in the form of Jamie McMurray. The emotional, well-liked driver already has a win this season but it doesn’t make him Chase-eligible, as NASCAR’s All-Star Race is just an exhibition. But after leading a career-high 148 laps, it looked like Chip Ganassi Racing might shock the grid and put pressure on bubble drivers like Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and in-house rookie Kyle Larson by stealing a spot in the Chase.
However, it wasn’t to be, as the last caution doomed McMurray. Sneaking in for fresh tires, it left him back in traffic for the final restart and the car seemed to change for for the worse from that point on.
“I don’t know what happened,” McMurray said. “Our car got really tight with about 100 laps to go. We freed it up on the last pit stop and it didn’t really help.”
That left him eighth, a whiff for a team that must win in order to get in. But that should leave McMurray on your radar for Richmond, a track he ran well at last fall in nearly pulling a major upset. Teammate Larson won the pole there in the spring and with McMurray’s penchant to pop up at random moments, he can’t be fully counted out.
FOURTH GEAR: Kasey Kahne lost in space
Typically, Kasey Kahne is one of the most mild-mannered drivers on tour. But after showing strength early at a track where he ran second last August, the Hendrick Motorsports pilot went ballistic after poor adjustments left his Chevy a handful to handle. Add in a loose wheel, twisting right-front suspension parts and a promising run quickly fizzled into an extended trip behind the wall.
A 35th-place result — Kahne’s worst since Pocono in June — leaves him 33 points behind Biffle for the final Chase spot. It’s a Grand Canyon-like dip in performance compared to his three teammates, and begs the question, with Chase Elliott waiting in the wings, whether Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis already feel like they’re a “lame duck” effort before Elliott’s ascension to Cup is even announced. While contracts are signed through 2015, it’s clear the Nationwide Series title contender with the famous last name has the bigger upside at this point. Can Kahne regain confidence without the promise of long-term security at Hendrick?
Danica Patrick had a rough weekend at Bristol, qualifying 24th and getting spun by Alex Bowman in-race. But while the rookie driver got paranoid, concerned “Danica Nation” and her occasional temper would get the best of him, it looks like hard feelings won’t carry over. “I think we’re fine,'' she told Motor Racing Network’s Dustin Long. "He's just got to know that when you do that and you don't leave room for error and you hit me and take me out, I'm right there. As soon as I find you again I'm going to let you know I'm not happy. We're fine. If he does it again, worse things will happen.” … A planned lap 14 tribute for Tony Stewart, along with a lap 13 standup to honor the tragic loss of Kevin Ward Jr. by fans went as planned at Bristol. However, ESPN didn’t show the fan-organized effort, choosing just to briefly mention it later in the race through play-by-play man Allen Bestwick. It is still unclear if New York authorities will charge Stewart for his involvement in Ward’s death, as the investigation now stretches into its third week. It’s hard to imagine the three-time champion returning to the track in any form or fashion until that concludes. … Kyle Larson (right) pulled another Herculean effort, coming from the back of the field in a back-up car after wrecking in practice, then hitting the wall in-race to finish 12th. Pulling together a lead-lap effort with a car in pieces is admirable but his Chase bid will probably fall short based on a common rookie problem: one too many crashes.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.