Penske’s 2-car NASCAR race team is an enigma
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CONCORD, N.C. – To hear Kurt Busch talk, his race team is struggling mightily and maybe some behind-the-scenes changes will save the season.
Then there’s Brad Keselowski, excited about three weeks of progress that have him enjoying his best stretch yet in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series.
That’s the enigma that is Penske Racing right now. Keselowski will start the Coca-Cola 600 from the pole, while defending race winner Busch will go off 26th in today’s race.
Keselowski doesn’t sugarcoat things, and readily admits the NASCAR side of Penske’s motorsports operation has areas that need improvement. But he does it thoughtfully and with an eagerness that good things are coming.
Busch is quite the opposite. He’s beyond being hopeful, and his assessments and outlook both seem dreary. He’s also angry with the media for harping on his in-race radio communications, which have gone from maniacal rants to near despondency over the last month.
It’s created the good cop-bad cop perception, even though both drivers want the same thing.
“He definitely has a different approach,” Keselowski said. “To be honest, if he didn’t have that approach, I probably would adopt it because you keep trying different things until you get what you want. I spent all last year being quiet and not saying, ‘Hey, this car is really, really bad’ to the media. But they were really, really bad.
“At the same time, Kurt was running well and I didn’t have a leg to stand on with that. This year, obviously my cars have gotten better. Kurt has had his struggles. But it’s somewhat refreshing to have someone that can speak up have a voice, have the credibility of being a past champion and past winner and those around him perhaps listen more intently.”
Busch apparently does make things happen behind the scenes.
His radio tirade at Richmond earlier this month was epic, and the fallout led to some serious organizational meetings that Busch believed would spur some changes. Less than two weeks later, technical director Tom German left the organization in what the team said was a long-planned opportunity to attend an elite graduate program at MIT.
“There were people that had good things to say about him and people that had bad things to say about him,” Keselowski said of German. “Either way, the change there has opened doors that would have never opened before. The jury is still out whether that’s good or bad.”
It’s such a far cry from Roger Penske’s esteemed IndyCar operation, which will attempt to win its 16th Indianapolis 500 today. Will Power, who will start from the second row, has two wins this season and leads the points standings.
Teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe have struggled at times this season and this month at Indy, and Briscoe will race in a backup today.
Back in NASCAR, the two Penske teams have been all over the map.
Busch opened the season as the driver to beat at Daytona, winning two exhibition races leading into the season-opener. Top-10 finishes in the first four races made him the points leader for two weeks, but he hasn’t had a top-10 since and has dropped to eighth in the standings.
Despite the drop-off, which has left Busch clearly frustrated, he begins each weekend with optimism only to learn shortly after the green flag that his car is not capable of contending for a win.
“I feel like we have to go into each race optimistic and positive so that you can find good results,” Busch said. “At the end of the day, Roger Penske and I agree that as long as you put yourself in position to do well, no matter what the outcome is, those are good days. But when you’re running 15th just clawing to hang onto the lead lap, those aren’t days that we need.
“We need to be up there leading laps and having good results. Sometimes, it’s a surprise in practice that we hit on something and then you get into the race and our car reacts a little different in that dirty air compared to the competition.”
That’s been the struggle for Busch dating back to last July at Chicagoland, where he said his Dodge was “a car that we couldn’t describe and figure out.”
His team made chassis changes as the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship began, and Busch said overall speed dropped off over the final two months of the season. He finished 11th in the final standings after grabbing just two top-10 finishes in the 10 Chase races.
Now, Busch’s team has almost no resemblance to the group that swept both May races at Charlotte Motor Speedway – including the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 – just one year ago.
“Twelve months later, we just find ourselves a bit behind in the mile-and-a-half department,” he said.
Keselowski, meanwhile, seems to be finding a groove. He’s had a miserable start to the season, but has honed in on something since running 33rd and 36th at Talladega and Richmond. He responded to some critical comments Busch made about not having teammates who can outrun him with a third at Darlington, a 13th at Dover, and then he raced his way into the All-Star race last week by finishing second in the Sprint Showdown.