Team Penske hopes new pit approach pays dividends
January 29, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Despite continuity with Cup drivers and crew chiefs, organization shakes up its pit crews
RELATED: Team Penske preview | Driver profiles: Brad Keselowski | Joey Logano
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Team Penske made one thing clear in their preview of the 2014 NASCAR season: Keeping the organization intact was a priority. It's the reason the word "continuity" was used eight times Wednesday afternoon by the team's drivers and officials during their 18-minute presentation on the Sprint Media Tour.
While the most prominent faces remain the same -- in keeping with the continuity theme -- it's the behind-the-scenes areas where the team has taken a more aggressive approach, all in the name of bettering finishes of eighth and 14th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings last year. The changes include a shuffling of pit-crew personnel for both full-time teams, an expanded role for star-in-the-making Ryan Blaney, and the offseason addition of a former college wrestling coach who has Joey Logano -- involved in a handful of physical altercations last season -- ready to take the mat.
"I've got some new wrestling moves," Logano joked. "So I'm ready if something happens this year like last year."
Grappling aside, the team retains the core of Logano, working with crew chief Todd Gordon in the No. 22 Ford, and 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe on the team's flagship No. 2 -- marking the first carryover of driver-crew chief pairings in 10 years, according to team president Tim Cindric. It's a stark contrast to the previous offseason, when team owner Roger Penske brought in a new driver in Logano, a new manufacturer in Ford and had to adapt to the new sixth-generation stock car for NASCAR's premier series.
With those key components locked up into 2014 and beyond, this offseason meant a top-to-bottom look at assessing its shortcomings. A big part of that focus centered on improvement in over-the-wall execution, including changing almost half of the crew members between the two Sprint Cup teams, according to Cindric.
"The pit crew stuff brought in a whole new approach and almost essentially gutted the culture of our pit department in the last month," Keselowski said. "It's been a rapid turnaround. I feel like we're going to go from being an average pit crew to the best on pit road, and that's our goal. Hopefully, that'll happen in a year's time, but maybe it'll take a bit longer, but we know the effort is there and the approach is there."
A pivotal piece to the pit-crew puzzle was the offseason hiring of Jim Beichner, the wrestling coach for 18 successful seasons at the University at Buffalo. The addition of Beichner as a true athletics director has brought structure to the team's fitness regimen, and Logano said he's already seen a shift in attitude among his crew.
For Penske, it was a new approach, but a necessary step.
"I think when you start with continuity, you talk about drivers, you talk about crew chiefs, you talk about team managers ... so when we look up and down the management side and the key players, they're there," Penske said. "Then you look down further in the organization and you say, 'where were we strong and where were we weak?' I think many times, the media said that our pit crew didn't execute the way they should. So we read our press clippings, quite honestly, and it said we need to be better.
"So we said, let's not say we just hire someone, what we really did was go out to get someone who's an athletic director, someone that worked with young people, built teams, won championships and brought Jim Beichner on, and I think that's going to make a difference."
The team's young core of Keselowski, 29, and Logano, 23, gets younger with expanded driving duties for the 20-year-old Blaney. Last season's Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is scheduled to make his Sprint Cup debut with two races (Kansas in May, Talladega in October), race a 15-event schedule for Penske in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and a full truck season for Keselowski's team.
It's just another facet to the significant, behind-the-scenes changes underneath the high-profile continuity.
"We're committed to making this work," Wolfe said, "so you can't be afraid to make change if that's one of your weaknesses and that's what we feel like we did this offseason."