Team Penske's speed coming with assist from LFR?
March 15, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Is early season success keyed by surprising source?
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The secret is out. The key to Team Penske's success early this season is -- Michael McDowell?
That was the speculation voiced this weekend by Matt Kenseth, after Roger Penske's two drivers continued to show speed at Bristol Motor Speedway. Brad Keselowski backed up his victory last week at Las Vegas by qualifying second at the half-mile short track, while Joey Logano has a pair of front-row starting spots and a pair of fourth-place finishes in the past two Sprint Cup Series events.
But Kenseth wondered if Penske was getting an assist from another Ford team -- Leavine Family Racing, which fields the No. 95 car driven by McDowell, and tested at Phoenix and Bristol. NASCAR limits testing to just four per year per organization at facilities that host national-series events.
"Without opening a can of worms, it’s my understanding that … they’ve been to all three tracks with their satellite teams -- Michael McDowell and cars like that, I think, in the Penske trailer," said Kenseth, who drives a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. "I think they’ve gathered a lot of information at all these tracks, and were really prepared when the season started. It really shows, because the first three races they’ve been the best two cars on Friday for qualifying and they’ve been pretty darn good in all the races, too. We haven’t really had that luxury, so we’ve been trying to look into that and figure out how we can get a little more track data gathered."
Leavine Family Racing began buying chassis from Penske late last season, owner Bob Leavine said. The team tested at Phoenix because McDowell is a native of nearby Glendale, Ariz., he added, and at Bristol other teams were present as well as a Ford engineer. "So the information would have been available to all Ford teams," Leavine said. But the relationship between his team and Penske does not extend beyond chassis and parts.
"We’d like to have that kind of a relationship with Penske," Leavine said, "but I’d want to be running better if that was the case."
Travis Geisler, competition director at Penske, said all manufacturers have agreements in place whereby if one team tests at a track, it distributes a lap of data or other information to all the organizations under that carmaker's umbrella. Being able to share data with other teams was one reason Penske moved to Ford from Dodge -- where it was the lone origination affiliated with the manufacturer -- prior to last season.
"Roger mentioned himself that we were on an island before, when we were really the only two teams that were on our manufacturer," Geisler said. "Anytime you can align yourself with more teams, there's definitely am advantage there. It's no different than what Hendrick has done with their Stewart-Haas alliance, the people they sell cars to. It's part of this business, the way it's gone. Everybody used to have their own engine shop and their own car shop, and we're down to really four big engine companies now. So I think we’ve benefited from that. We've been able to gather information from all the Ford teams."
But Geisler downplayed the idea of a direct pipeline with LFR, saying McDowell's setups wouldn’t directly translate to the cars of Keselowski and Logano, and that Penske doesn't have "complete, full" data from every track this season, as Kenseth speculated.
"We've certainly been able to share information … of what we're seeing when we go to these different tracks, but that's something I think has been occurring for a while now, and isn't really that uncommon," Geisler said. "As company and manufacturer relationships develop, that’s kind of the way this has all gone. Whenever Roush has an engine problem, we immediately know what it is and we can help address it on our cars, and that makes us stronger as a group. That’s a lot the same way that this is."
Although the Ford fleet has seen an uptick in performance as a whole, Penske has been at a level above the rest. "Whatever they’re doing it’s working well," said Carl Edwards, who drives a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, and has top-10s in two of his first three starts. Keselowski offered a more simplified -- and yet, altogether more enigmatic -- explanation.
"It’s black magic," the 2012 series champion said. "I don’t think it’s that complicated. I don’t think there’s any big secret. If you’re fast, you’re fast, and it shows through."