Team Penske's enviable position a game changer
April 08, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
FORT WORTH, Texas – With the depth of competition and height of talent in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it’s really not too surprising that there have been seven different winners in the first seven races.
That Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin are not among the victors is a little perplexing, however. These are the drivers who have won the most in recent seasons, yet they are still looking for a win in the season when it means most.
And while there is a pervasive feeling of when, not if, for this marquee crew of serial winners, it’s interesting to see what already hoisting a trophy can mean strategically-speaking.
Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, whose teammate Joey Logano won Monday at Texas Motor Speedway, didn’t mince words about the immediate and long-term impact of already having both Penske drivers essentially Chase qualified only two months into the schedule.
"It’s huge, absolutely huge," said Keselowski, who won at Las Vegas and trailed only Logano in laps led at Texas.
He smiled after the race Monday and suggested maybe his late race speeding penalty off pit road heading to a green-white-checkered final restart was a result of the his and/or the team’s change in mentality -- the luxury of having secured an early season win.
"It’s all about stacking up wins now and that’s what we’re reaching for," Keselowski said, adding with a laugh. "Maybe we reached a little too aggressively today, but that’s the benefit of being in the position we’re in."
But he agreed that in the bigger picture having both drivers with victories fundamentally and enviably changes the way they go about business.
"This allows us to dedicate our approach to [season finale] Homestead and the Chase races," Keselowski explained. "We’re very fortunate we haven’t burned any of our team tests yet and now that we have both cars in the Chase we can just burn through those on Chase tracks so that’s a pretty healthy advantage.
"It puts us in a really great position."
The two-car Penske operation is the only team "all-in" in terms of likely spots in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason.
The only other team with multiple winners in 2014 isn’t Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Roush-Fenway Racing, as many might have guessed. It’s Stewart-Haas Racing, who despite all the extra challenges of adding a fourth team and having three new driver/crew chief pairings this year, has already gotten wins from both its newcomers, Kevin Harvick (Phoenix) and Kurt Busch (Martinsville.).
But with two cars in and two to go, SHR doesn’t have the same ability for a full shift in direction as Team Penske. It’s focus after winning twice is sharing that information to get at least one of their other two teams in the Chase – a goal team owner-driver Tony Stewart said this preseason he fully expected to meet.
For the winners so far, getting a victory isn’t just a feeling of joy and celebration but of relief and re-focus. The whole game has changed with the new elimination-style postseason format debuting this year.
Logano conceded Monday that his team had been a bit worried about how, when and where to use their team tests if he remained in the winless column for much longer.
"We were concerned enough to talk about it Saturday after practice for a while," Logano said. "It was definitely a concern, trying to plan out how we're going to use these tests. Now that we're in the Chase we can use these tests a little differently than what we were thinking.
"It's big. The way you strategize to build the racecars, what you need to do for when it comes Chase time, it allows you to go the right direction and be able to really focus on later in the season at this point.
"I’m not saying we're not going to work hard to win races later in the year. Like [crew chief] Todd [Gordon] said, we need to run well and win some more races because you want to go into the Chase with momentum. As far as updating specs, stuff like that, we can start to focus on Chase stuff."
As the 23-year old Logano spoke he glanced over at his veteran crew chief Gordon, who is tasked with balancing strategy and tempering emotion – mindful that there are still 19 races to set the 16-driver Chase field.
"You can't be stupid about it," Gordon said smiling briefly. "But it does open up your box to be a little bit more aggressive on how you call a race. You can be a little bit more aggressive on how you tune a race. It allows you to be a little more explorative.
"But we can't get too far out of that box of what's been successful for us. It allows us to be a little more aggressive and maybe try a few things. You don't want to throw everything away and be reckless with it, but it does allow you to be a little more aggressive."