Team Penske: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Joey Logano says that Team Penske may be smaller than others, but its internal harmony has helped bring success. Logano finished fourth in points last year.

Joey Logano says that Team Penske may be smaller than others, but its internal harmony has helped bring success. Logano finished fourth in points last year.

Given the way Team Penske performed last year, you really shouldn’t expect major changes for 2015. In fact, you should not expect any changes at all.

The team’s drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, performed admirably. Both made the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. Logano was one of four drivers in the running for the championship at Homestead.

Logano completed the year fourth in points with five victories.

Keselowski fell short of the final four. But he did finish fifth with six wins. Combined, the Penske drivers won 11 Sprint Cup races in 2014.

That was just two victories short of the total compiled by Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers, none of whom made it to the championship round at Homestead, by the way.

Penske scored more wins than Joe Gibbs Racing (eight) and Roush Fenway Racing (none).

Hendrick, a strong, winning organization for years, has been the team by which all others are measured.

And in 2014, Penske measured up pretty darn good.

Team owner Roger Penske said that last season was his team’s best ever. And he intends for things to get better.

“Teamwork paid off,” he said. “To me it’s going to be our foundation in 2015. Something that isn’t broken, let’s not fix it.”

Brad Keselowski admits that he drives extra hard at times, but if it means a victory, then he's going to keep on doing it.

Brad Keselowski admits that he drives extra hard at times, but if it means a victory, then he’s going to keep on doing it.

After his tenure at Gibbs, Logano hit his stride at Penske. Yes, he won three times in four years with Gibbs, but he has six wins in two years with Penske – not to mention a shot at the title.

Logano believes that his accomplishments may not have been reached without the rapport he has at Penske. That won’t be forgotten. Nor will some of his past on-track escapades.

“There’s no such thing as bygones being bygones in this sport,” Logano said. “Everyone seems to remember. Stuff carries over for a long time.

“There was a lot of drama last year but I don’t think it will affect 2015. Hopefully none of us are involved in it this year and we will just get to race.”

It’s fair to say most of the drama in 2014 centered on Keselowski, an outspoken competitor who isn’t afraid to take chances – particularly if they end up in victory.

“I made guys mad racing for the win,” Keselowski said. “It wasn’t racing for 20th. You get into a wreck racing for 20th, heck, that doesn’t make Sports Center.

“If you do it racing for the win or a championship then you are probably doing the right thing.

“When I get called for it, I see it as a compliment. That may not be the way others see it, but I do.”

Keselowski has seen first hand the changes at Penske. When he arrived six years ago, he said he saw three different teams operating under the same banner but sharing very little.

So it’s not difficult to understand why results varied. In 2010, Keselowski and teammate Sam Hornish Jr. did not win and ranked 25th or worse in points. Kurt Busch, with two wins, made the Chase.

“Now, the difference is we have all our teams working together closely,” Keselowski said. “We’ve earned more wins than we’ve had as a team in a long time.

“And we probably have the best relationships inside the company and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.”

This year, Ryan Blaney joins Penske as its principal XFINITY Series driver. He will compete in selected Sprint Cup events and race a limited schedule with the Wood Brothers, which has a technical alliance with Penske.

Although smaller than Hendrick, Gibbs or Roush Fenway, Penske has thrived. There’s a reason for that, according to Logano.

“We’re all on the same level,” he said. “You hear all the time how important it is to work really well together and for us, that is what is happening.

“And, yes, that is very important.”

If you say Keselowski and Logano will enter 2015 as title contenders, well, they won’t argue with you – nor will anyone else.

They have already proven their mettle.

“We have two or three of the best cars,” said Keselowski, an expectant father. “No, we aren’t the largest. But I think that is to our advantage.

“It was part of our success last year and it will be this year.”

 

Petty Has, At Last, Foundation For Success And Not Just Survival

Richard Petty has expressed confidence that his team now has a solid foundation and is better prepared for the 2015 season than it has been in past years.

Richard Petty has expressed confidence that his team now has a solid foundation and is better prepared for the 2015 season than it has been in past years.

It wasn’t that long ago that many of us wondered if Richard Petty would cease to be a part of NASCAR – at least as a team owner.

The long-enduring Petty Enterprises had evaporated, something we thought would never happen. But years of turmoil and financial uncertainty made all the difference.

Petty pressed on but, frankly, as a team owner he was never on steady financial ground, largely because his primary investor was also on shaky ground.

But then he did something several others had done before him.

He secured financial partners. In November 2010 he teamed up with Medallion Financial and DGB Investments, and principals Andrew Murstein and Doug Bergeron, to form Richard Petty Motorsports.

It was a smart move and the same one undertaken by some of NASCAR’s top team owners, like Richard Childress, Jack Roush and Michael Waltrip.

It meant that Petty now had the resources to build his organization without fear of financial loss. He trimmed Petty Motorsports to two cars for the 2011 with drivers AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose.

Last year Aric Almirola earned his first career win and the third for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

Last year Aric Almirola earned his first career win and the third for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

To honest Petty Motorsports has never been a front-runner for a championship. But its competitive growth has been steady, if somewhat slow.

And it has won races.

Ambrose, an Australian road course ace, scored for Petty at Watkins Glen in 2011. And he did it again in 2012. He won three Xfinity Series events.

Ambrose is gone, having chosen to return to his home country to race, again, in the V8 Supercar Series.

Since 2012, Petty’s other driver has been Aric Almirola, who hasn’t put up the same numbers as Ambrose – but whose improvement has been duly noted. Let’s not forget he won the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona last July.

This year, Sam Hornish Jr. will join Almirola. Hornish hasn’t had a full-time Sprint Cup ride since his spotty tenure with Roger Penske. That ended in 2013 after Hornish ran only one race.

But it’s not like he lacks experience, not at all.

A sure sign of RPM’s growth is the fact that it has moved its shops. The team was once housed in a 44,000-square-foot facility near the Concord, N.C., airport. It is now 30 minutes away in Mooresville in a facility with twice the space.

The team now has more control on the way the cars are prepared for its drivers, since it no longer has to buy them from other teams.

Now out of its financial maladies and armed with sponsorship – though the team needs to secure more for season-long support – Petty thinks his team can operate for success rather than survival.

“We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been in over the last three or four years,” Petty said during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. “Everybody knows we went really to the bottom a couple or three years ago when our car owner (George Gillette) went bankrupt or whatever.

“We brought in new investors and just tried to get some foundation. I don’t know that our season last year was that much better off than the year before, but it was a heckuva lot more stable. Some sponsors have stepped up, so that let’s us think we’re doing the right thing.”

Brian Moffitt, CEO at RPM, agreed with Petty that more input from sponsors, and the addition of new ones, is indicative of team progress.

“When Richard, Andy and Doug got together a couple of years ago they did not want to run at the rear of the pack,” Moffitt said. “The winning tradition of the Pettys is to run up front. That’s what we’re in this for.

“We’ve had some success in bringing in sponsors who have helped us improve our R&D efforts so these guys can go out and compete at the highest level.”

Said Almirola, “We’ve got a lot of momentum on our side. We’re not going to falter this year. We’ve got a lot of things going at Richard Petty Motorsports and we are ready for 2015.”

No one at RPM, including Richard Petty himself, would disagree with that.

 

 

 

How ‘Huck Finn’ Became ‘Awesome Bill From Dawsonville’

One of several accomplishments that got Bill Elliott inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame was his Winston Cup championship in 1988.

One of several accomplishments that got Bill Elliott inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame was his Winston Cup championship in 1988.

When the media first saw Bill Elliott in 1976 it was all they could do not to laugh.

Oh, they had seen kid race drivers before and they certainly had seen one-car, family-owned teams that didn’t have the equipment or personnel to hang around NASCAR any longer than a few races.

But what was different was Elliott himself. He was a Georgia boy from Dawsonville who was the perfect example of a hayseed – the term used by many cynical media members.

He was thin with a full head of curly red hair. When he spoke the Georgia accent oozed. It was easy to picture him on a riverbank, cane pole in hand and a stalk of straw hanging out of his mouth.

All he was missing was a face full of freckles.

Almost immediately the media gave him a new name: “Huck Finn.”

He might have been on a basement-tier team owned by his father George, but ol’ “Huck” was a persistent cuss.

With the help of brother Ernie, the engine builder, and Dan, youngest of the clan, Elliott kept racing, year after year.

He never competed on the full schedule – most of the time he entered no more than 13 races a year – but he never left. Five years after his debut, “Huck” was still racing.

Then things began to change.

Elliott astonished the racing world when he won 11 superspeedway races and the first Winston Million bonus in 1985.

Elliott astonished the racing world when he won 11 superspeedway races and the first Winston Million bonus in 1985.

In 1982 George Elliott sold the family team to Harry Melling, an industrialist from Michigan who was virtually unknown in NASCAR.

In 21 races that season Elliott compiled eight top-five finishes and won his first career pole position at Michigan.

The media wasn’t overly impressed. They still called him “Huck Finn.”

In 1983, jaws dropped and eyebrows rose during Elliott’s first year on the full schedule. “Huck” won one race, finished 12 times among the top five and ran up 22 finishes among the top 10. He finished third in points.

After Elliott won the last race of the year at Riverside, Bobby Allison was prompted to say, “Ol’ ‘Huck’ did good, didn’t he?”

He would do better. In 1984, Elliott won three races, finished among the top five 13 times and 24 times among the top 10. He again finished third in points.

Now he was considered a rising star. But the name “Huck” didn’t go away.

It all changed in 1985. Elliott had one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history. He set and broke records. He turned the world of auto racing on its ear.

Elliott won 11 superspeedway races and 11 pole positions – a feat since unequaled.

The season was the first for the Winston Million, a program designed by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., sponsor of the Winston Cup Series.

Any driver who could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500 – would receive a $1million bonus from RJR.

Of course, Elliott won it with victories at Daytona, Talladega and Darlington.

During all of this the media quit poking fun at Elliott. Instead they sought to find the reasons why his Ford was so much faster than any other car on the track.

Conspiracy theories were published. Some said Ernie had found a few tricks even the best engine builders did not know. The team had a special fuel additive.

One major stock car magazine announced in bold headlines that it had found the Elliott secret. Well, no. Even Ernie, normally a taciturn fellow, shook his head and laughed when he read the article.

The media besieged Elliott. A normally shy, quiet guy, this made him uncomfortable. He tried to answer the burning question of his newly found speed, saying repeatedly that he and Ernie had found “the combination” that worked for his car and engine.

The media moniker “Huck Finn” disappeared. It was washed away by waves of fan admiration. They gave him the name “Awesome Bill From Dawsonville.”

His popularity increased after he won the Winston Cup championship in 1988.

Fact is it never wavered.

Elliott won the Most Popular Driver Award in every year except three from 1984-2002. His fans were intensely loyal.

However, Elliott had to travel to New York each year to receive his award.

Elliott was decidedly not a New York-type of guy. More than once he was seen ducking into his hotel room with bags of groceries, done for the night.

Now 59 years old and retired from racing since 2012, Elliott will receive another, deserved honor.

He will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 30.

Certainly he could not have imagined this when he started racing as a red-haired country boy all those years ago.

Attaboy, “Huck.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR Testing Is An Entirely New Deal – And More Challenging For Teams

Matt Kenseth was one of the first to test at Las Vegas under the new NASCAR format for 2015. He said because of the fewer number of tests, getting vital information is critical.

Matt Kenseth was one of the first to test at Las Vegas under the new NASCAR format for 2015. He said because of the fewer number of tests, getting vital information is critical.

I remember that, years ago, NASCAR’s testing policy was so liberal that, to me, it forced the Sprint Cup teams to spend much more money than necessary – and thus deplete their budgets.

In addition to testing at Daytona in January in preparation for the Daytona 500, NASCAR permitted teams an unlimited amount of tests each season. In time the only real modification it made was to restrict testing to speedways that did not hold a NASCAR event.

Didn’t make any difference. Team bosses and strategists reached the conclusion that if they didn’t test at least as many times as their rivals, they were going to be left in the dust, competitively.

So it became something of a competition – you know, see which team could test most often and thus build something of an edge at each race.

Teams actually created other internal teams with the sole responsibility of testing. No, I’m not kidding.

The “test” team would travel to a speedway taking with it a driver, cars, a hauler and full complement of equipment and crewmen.

Brad Keselowski was also at the Vega test and he said that for this team getting new people prepared for the season was very important.

Brad Keselowski was also at the Vega test and he said that for this team getting new people prepared for the season was very important.

Tests would last two or three days.

Now think of it. A full team spends several days at a speedway for testing. That’s exactly the same thing as going to a race.

And expenses? Imagine – including travel, food, housing, salaries, equipment and, in most cases, a track rental fee and funds for emergency vehicles and personnel – a team was spending as much money as it did at every race. Heck, maybe more.

A team that tested early in the week and then went to a race that weekend was spending twice as much money than if had simply gone to the event.

And, as it has always been in NASCAR, some teams had bigger budgets than others. Which meant they were certain to outrun their low-income rivals.

Now get this: Some teams actually asked NASCAR to find ways to lower the cost of racing.

I can remember sounding off during a broadcast of “Inside NASCAR:”

“You are asking NASCAR to cut your costs while you continue to fund special teams for the sole purpose of testing as often as possible? I asked. “Bah! Humbug!”

Of course I didn’t expect to have a profound impact on NASCAR, but I did have fun – and thought I made a lot of sense. Many agreed with me.

I do believe NASCAR saw the problems in unlimited testing and, over the years, has done much to correct them.

For example, it limited the number of tests to seven a while back. But even that wasn’t enough.

The sanctioning body has taken a big step for 2015. Last month in announced that all off-season testing was banned.

There would be three types of tests, NASCAR-approved tire tests, NASCAR tests and open-team tests.

Goodyear has scheduled 14 tire tests, most of which will be one-or two-day runs followed by a single-day team test.

Teams will be given a four-hour window for testing one day before the start of a track’s race weekend. The only exceptions have been Las Vegas this week and Atlanta in March. In all other cases the team test will come after the tire test.

There is no more pre-season testing at Daytona.

NASCAR believes teams will get more value out of testing because they will be doing it at the tracks on which they actually race. It will be in line with where they are going to be racing.

Sounds good to me. And it has got to be a heckuva lot less expensive.

But testing has now become doubly important, simply because there are fewer sessions, and time, in which teams can deal with changes such as less horsepower and modified aero packages.

On Jan. 19, the teams of Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger tested at Vegas. They agree that the ban on private testing offers new challenges.

“You’ve really got to take advantage of the tests when you get them and try to gather as much information as you can – hopefully it’s information you can use down the road,” said Kenseth. “For us, we didn’t run particularly well last year and we’ve got a new nose on our Camry.

“Given that and the changes to the aero packages we’re just trying to get it sorted out.”

“Every test you have is much more critical because you have so much less,” Keselowski said. “In our case it’s not so much about the car as it is the people.

“We’ve added two or three more people to our teams so we’re trying to get them up to speed.”

So it would appear that given the ban of off-season or private testing, what exists in 2015 has become more important than ever.

There are fewer tests. There are fewer days spent on testing. Given that, teams are challenged to get as much out of it all as they possibly can.

 

 

 

 

 

Kyle Larson Considered By Many To Be Sure Winner In 2015

Kyle Larson came aboard Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2014 after going through NASCAR's diversity program. He put together an excellent season and won the Rookie of the Year title.

Kyle Larson came aboard Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2014 after going through NASCAR’s diversity program. He put together an excellent season and won the Rookie of the Year title.

If you aren’t betting that Kyle Larson will win a race in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, you are in the minority.

Fact is, if Larson had won just one race last year and made it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he would have been a serious challenger for the championship.

That’s because he may have raced at his best during the Chase, with five consecutive finishes in the top five. That would have made him tough to beat.

As it is, the guys in the Chase were probably relieved Larson was not among them.

Tapped by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to replace Juan Pablo Montoya in 2014, Larson put together a solid inaugural season. He had eight finishes among the top five and 17 among the top 10 and captured Rookie of the Year honors.

The 22-year-old Larson was particularly effective during the last half of the season when he raced on tracks for a second time.

And, as said, he was spectacular in the Chase. In the first five races of the 10-race “playoff” Larson finished third, second, sixth, second and sixth.

He nearly won at Chicago, the first Chase race.

After leading over 30 laps, with 18 laps to go he engaged in a battle with Kevin Harvick, allowing Brad Keselowski to catch up and pass Larson for the lead and ultimately the win.

After two more cautions, Larson finished third after battling Jeff Gordon – who admitted he was a Larson fan.

In a post-race media conference Gordon called Larson “The real deal” and Larson said, “It’s touching when you hear a champion say that about you. It’s a huge deal.”

Betcha Gordon thinks Larson is going to win this year.

During his first season with EGR one of Larson's accomplishments was to win the pole for the second race at Pocono.

During his first season with EGR one of Larson’s accomplishments was to win the pole for the second race at Pocono.

Larson is a Japanese American, also of Native American heritage, who hails from Elk Grove, Calif. His Japanese American mother’s parents spent time in an internment camp.

He came up through the racing ranks. He is a Drive for Diversity graduate who signed with EGR and promptly won his first stock car race.

He won the 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship and the Rookie of the Year title driving for Rev Racing. It was the first title for the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program.

Larson then finished first and second in his two initial NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts with Turner Scott Motorsports in conjunction with EGR.

In 2013 Larson won the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year Award – he has a thing for rookie titles, doesn’t he? – after he finished eighth in the final standings with nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. He made four Sprint Cup starts that season before entering competition full-time last year.

Larson has shown a penchant for adapting to every NASCAR circuit on which he has raced. Fact is he has more than adapted – he has excelled.

Given that he now has one full Sprint Cup season under his belt he should be better prepared and more experienced. It stands to reason that will serve him well in 2015.

But there are no guarantees. Until we get into the season we’re not certain what effect the 2015 rules changes will have. Some teams may get their arms around them pretty quickly but others may struggle.

Last year, you remember, Matt Kenseth struggled and failed to win a race after winning seven times in 2013.

Other drivers who have had notable past seasons, like Jimmie Johnson, seemed to be playing catch-up in 2014.

My personal belief is that I’m not certain the 2015 rules will make much difference at all.

And I also join many others, including nearly everyone in the garage area, who think it’s just a matter of time – and it may be a short time – before Larson becomes a winner.

 

NASCAR: More Professional And Personal Changes For 2015

Brian Vickers will not race early in 2015 because he is recuperating from heart surgery. Vickers has overcome medical problems in the past, can he do it again?

Brian Vickers will not race early in 2015 because he is recuperating from heart surgery. Vickers has overcome medical problems in the past, can he do it again?

Change in NASCAR is inevitable. From technological alterations enforced by the sanctioning body to the numerous driver-crew chief-team-sponsor shifts that are often so prominent in the off-season, nothing much stays the same.

So it is with the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. When it begins there will be plenty of new developments that will create the year’s new character – and make it quite different from 2014.

I’ve mentioned some of them – professional and personal – already. How will NASCAR rule changes affect competition? (Truthfully, that question can be asked during every off-season).

On the personal side among the inquiries were, how will health and legal issues affect Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch? Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be successful with new crew chief Greg Ives?

Let’s talk some more about personal issues.

What has happened to Brian Vickers is more than a mere shame. It’s a condition that could not only affect his career, but also his very life.

Vickers, who drives for Michael Waltrip Racing, will not be available to race during the early part of the 2015 season. His body is rejecting an artificial patch that was inserted in 2010 to fix a hole in his heart.

He’s had corrective surgery to repair the hole and he’s begun the recovery process. He’ll need plenty of time, rest and rehab.

How much more can Vickers endure? You remember that a series of blood clots put him out of action just a very few years ago. By 2012, Vickers had joined MWR on a part-time basis and then became a full-time driver for the team in 2014.

Danica Patrick is in her third year with Stewart Haas. It's very likely her 2015 performances must improve if she wants a contract extension when the season is over.

Danica Patrick is in her third year with Stewart Haas. It’s very likely her 2015 performances must improve if she wants a contract extension when the season is over.

Vickers was the 2003 Xfinity Series champion and in 58 races with MWR he’s finished among the top five eight times and 19 among the top 10. For his career, he has three wins and 12 poles in 316 starts.

The obvious question is what will MWR do during Vickers absence? Who will be selected as his relief driver – and how long will that driver remain with MWR? We don’t know the amount of time that Vickers will be on the sidelines.

But we have to ask the question, will Vickers be back at all? He’s dealt with blood clots – which can be deadly – and now the hole in his heart, which, I’m sure, any doctor will call very serious and, just perhaps, life-threatening.

I think nearly every fan will be pulling for Vickers. It’s clear that he has the determination needed to come back. After all, he’s done it before.

Vickers has already said the setback will not stop him from pursuing his dream of a Sprint Cup title.

That’s just the attitude he needs.

Carl Edwards has moved to Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 years with Roush Fenway Racing. The question is, can he be as successful as Matt Kenseth, who signed with JGR in 2013 following his long tenure with Roush.

As you remember, Kenseth won seven races with Gibbs in his first year. Believe me, that doesn’t happen very often at all with a new driver-team association.

But I think it’s logical to assume Edwards may be a multiple winner in 2015. And the implementation of the new Chase format has made it more feasible for a new driver-team to achieve consistency.

Frankly, I think Edwards has a better chance to be successful in 2015 simply because the Gibbs team has been significantly more competitive than the Roush organization.

NASCAR has announced new eligibility requirements for the 2015 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona. Among the entries will be all 16 drivers who participated in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

There are other eligibility rules, such as 2014 pole winners, former Sprint Unlimited winners, past Daytona 500 pole winners who competed on the full schedule last year, etc., etc.

It practically takes your breath away. At present there are 25 Sprint Unlimited entries.

There’s been some grousing that these new eligibility rules were created for the sole purpose of putting Danica Patrick, a former Daytona 500 pole winner, into the field.

Well, so what? The Sprint Unlimited means nothing as far as the 2015 season goes. It awards no points. It’s an exhibition race and as such, who cares which drivers – and how many of them – compete?

Ask me, the more the merrier.

As for Patrick, she’s in her third year with Stewart Haas Racing. She will be expected to show progress. She has to finish among the top 10 with regularity and not crash as frequently.

To do so will bode well for her when her contract expires at the end of 2015.

 

 

Changes: Personal And Professional Herald 2015 Season

Tony Stewart had a dismal 2014 season and afterward had a fifth surgery on the broken leg he suffered in 2013. Can he come back from adversity to have a good 2015 season?

Tony Stewart had a dismal 2014 season and afterward had a fifth surgery on the broken leg he suffered in 2013. Can he come back from adversity to have a good 2015 season?

As the short NASCAR Sprint Cup plows forward toward February, it’s not unusual for folks to speculate on what might happen in the coming season or, in some cases, before.

After all, many changes have taken place and others are anticipated. Make no mistake they will have their effect. The question is, in each instance, what will that be?

Several changes are technological and competitive in nature and some are personal. But they all pique our interest and, indeed, could have a bearing on what we see in 2015.

The obvious question is how will the rule changes for 2015 affect racing? If we go by the recent Goodyear tire testing at Charlotte, the answer is: We don’t know yet.

Some drivers felt there was little change in the feel and handling of the cars from 2014. Others said they noticed the cars were “more free,” indicating a loss of downforce.

Actually, no one will get a very good sense of what all the rule changes mean until they get some time on the track – and in actual competition.

Once that happens some teams will find the changes very beneficial while others will struggle, at least for a while. That’s the way it’s always been.

My prediction? Most of the rule changes, not all, are neither as dramatic nor as plentiful as they have been in the past. I think the issues they may create are going to be relatively small.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a terrific 2014 season with four victories, including the Daytona 500, and an eighth-place in the final point standings.

Kurt Busch is currently being investigated for an assault on his ex-girlfriend. This situation builds pressure because the results may determine the fate of his career.

Kurt Busch is currently being investigated for an assault on his ex-girlfriend. This situation builds pressure because the results may determine the fate of his career.

He was also named the Most Popular Driver, again, and was the winner of the prestigious National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contributions to racing.

He never had an inkling he would receive such an award.

However, Earnhardt Jr.’s on-track achievements were compiled under the direction of crew chief Steve Letarte. Letarte will not be back. He’s become a member of the NBA race broadcast crew.

Letarte’s replacement is Greg Ives. A former engineer for Jimmie Johnson, last season Ives was at Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports where he guided Chase Elliott to the Xfinity (formerly Nationwide) Series championship.

His pedigree sounds pretty darn good to me. And his familiarity with Hendrick Motorsports bodes well.

But you know how it works with a driver and a new crew chief. Nothing matters until they become good buddies and post good numbers.

Trust me, the “Junior Nation” will be watching.

Tony Stewart’s 2014 season was a black hole. Let’s put aside the tragic incident in New York – which Stewart will never forget.

Instead, there are questions about his health. Stewart suffered a broken leg in a 2013 Sprint Car accident and to see him limp around the garage area told us he was not fully recovered.

Stewart underwent a fifth operation, called routine, just weeks after the 2014 season ended.

Well, most likely because of the tragedy in New York and lingering physical shortcomings, in 2014 Stewart had the worst season of his career. He failed to win a race for the first time in 15 years.

Stewart Haas Racing is behind its driver and says he will be ready for 2015.

Really? He’s 43 years old and coming off an emotionally draining season and a fifth surgery.

That’s a lot to overcome. And it’s fair to say many will watch to see if Stewart can do it.

Let’s get even more personal.

Police are still investigating the charges that Kurt Busch assaulted his ex-girlfriend on Sept. 26 in Dover. A judge will decide on Dec. 16 if a restraining order should be issued against him.

It seems likely Busch will know his fate before the Daytona 500. NASCAR Chairman Brian France has stated no sanctions will be taken until police complete their investigation.

So Busch’s career is, in fact, in limbo. That has to be a nerve-wracking situation.

To tell the truth, it always is when your fate is in someone else’s hands.

More to come.

 

 

 

 

2014 Was A Solid, Successful Season For Team Penske

Brad Keselowski won six races in 2014 and was an integral part of Team Penske's successful season.

Brad Keselowski won six races in 2014 and was an integral part of Team Penske’s successful season.

The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was the year of Team Penske.

The two-car Ford team was, in the end, the best in the sport. Its drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, combined to win 11 races and ultimately finish fourth (Logano) and fifth (Keselowski) in the final point standings.

But that is hardly the full story.

For most of the season Hendrick Motorsports held sway. The four-car team was in front, or near the front, of the point standings for the majority of the season.

After Atlanta, one race before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Richmond, Hendrick teams claimed three of the top five in the point standings, with Jeff Gordon in first followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in second and Jimmie Johnson fifth.

The Hendrick foursome claimed 10 victories and, with all drivers in the Chase, there was little reason not to think that one of them would claim the title.

However, Logano was third in points and Keselowski fifth.

Keselowski dominated the last event before the Chase, at Richmond, which moved him to No 1 in points as the “playoffs” began.

Joey Logano, who won five races for Penske this year was, like Keselowski, ranked first in points more than once during the Chase.

Joey Logano, who won five races for Penske this year was, like Keselowski, ranked first in points more than once during the Chase.

He won again at Chicago and scored top-10 finishes at Loudon and Dover to be atop the standings after the first elimination round.

But guess what? In that first round Logano scored three top-five finishes, including a win at Loudon.

Penske was one-two in points with Keselowski in the lead. Hendrick drivers Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon, were fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively.

As has been reported often, the end for three of the Hendrick teams came at Kansas, the first race of the second elimination round.

Kasey Kahne finished 22nd, Earnhardt Jr. 39th after mechanical problems and Johnson 40th after he was involved in a multicar accident.

Their chances for survival quickly took a big hit, something not unusual in the new Chase format.

Keselowski didn’t fare much better. He wound up 37th and after the race, he, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson were at the bottom of the 12-man ranking. Only eight would move on.

But consider this: Logano won at Kansas, which meant he would safely advance to the next round. Penske teams won five   three of the first five Chase races and finished second in another.

However, while Logano was atop the standings Keselowski was scrambling for his life.

He had only two races to save himself – and that he did with a victory at Talladega. He advanced and was eighth among the competitors who did so.     Consider that Penske won four of six Chase races. At the same time Hendrick had only one winner -Gordon – and three of its drivers were no longer in the Chase.

In the end, it wasn’t to be for Penske. Hendrick won the next two races with Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson.

Going into the third round, at Phoenix – the one that would determine the championship finalists – Logano was first in points and Keselowski seventh and holding on. 

Keselowski didn’t make it to Homestead. Logano did and was second in points.

It evolved that Kevin Harvick won at Homestead, as he did at Phoenix, and became he 2014 champion.

Logano, in the hunt at Homestead for most of the day, was very disappointed in his final 16th-place finish.

“I screwed up and hit the wall early and we were able to recover then had the mistake on pit road which didn’t give us enough time to recover from that,” he said. “It is unfortunate.

Execution was our strong point all year and we just didn’t do it at Homestead. For that reason we finished fourth after I think we scored the most points this whole Chase.

“This was an awesome experience. This is the first time I have had a shot at winning a championship and the first time I won more than one race in a season. It has been a spectacular year.”

Keselowski, who wound up a solid third at Homestead, was philosophical about the season.

“The fastest car all season – Kevin (Harvick) – won the championship,” he said. “I think that is right. We had the most wins and finished seventh.

“You can argue every case for a championship scenario but the reality is that we all knew what it took to win going in and Kevin and his team did it.”

But it must be said that what Team Penske – Logano and Keselowski – did was very admirable.

Eleven victories in 2014 joined by 33 finishes among the top five and 42 among the top 10.

With four cars, twice as many, Hendrick earned 13 wins, 40 top-five finishes and 74 among the top 10.

In seven of the 10 races that made up the Chase, a Penske car was ranked No. 1 in points. A Hendrick car was atop the standings only once.

The highest Hendrick finisher for the season was Gordon, in sixth.

All of this might be, to you, nitpicking.

But I don’t think there is any argument that when it came to the Chase – the time that mattered – Penske was clearly superior.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harvick: The Right Man To Win The Championship

Kevin Harvick is congratulated by his team owner, Tony Stewart, after Harvick won his first Sprint Cup title and the second for Stewart Haas Racing.

Kevin Harvick is congratulated by his team owner, Tony Stewart, after Harvick won his first Sprint Cup title and the second for Stewart Haas Racing.

Many competitors have already said that Kevin Harvick deserved the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship – and many fans agree.

During the course of the season he emerged as one of the most competitive drivers in NASCAR. He put up the kind of numbers it takes to win a title.

For example, he led 2,137 laps, more than any other driver. He’s only the third competitor to lead more than 2,000 laps in a given season.

Interestingly, Jimmie Johnson lead 2,238 laps in 2009 and Jeff Gordon 2,320 laps in 2001 – and both won a championship.

Just prior to the start of the Chase, Harvick started leading laps with ease. He led the most laps in four of the first five “playoff” races, but won only once, at Charlotte.

Prior to 2014, Harvick finished among the top-five in the championship standings six times. He finished third three times, in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Despite his propensity for leading laps during the Chase, Harvick found himself in a quandary. He was eighth in points after Texas and had to find some way to move into the final four after Phoenix, the next, and last, race before the championship tilt at Homestead.

Harvick came through marvelously. He won at Phoenix – where he led the most laps, again – and cracked the top four, barely.

At Phoenix Harvick might have been at his best. Certainly his championship rivals – Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman – were not about to do anything than their best.

With Harvick in the lead much of the time, the championship contenders locked themselves into the top five, lap after lap.

It was pure, hard racing – the kind of which NASCAR fans so heartily approved.

Ford EcoBoost 400

Harvick came into the last race of the year, at Homestead, fourth in points. His second win in the Chase put him over the top.

Circumstances changed near the end of the race. Harvick found himself free of most of his challengers. Only Newman persisted.

Harvick led the last eight laps (of 54 for the race) and won his second consecutive race in the Chase. It assured him of his first Sprint Cup championship.

Harvick finished with five victories – tied for second-most on the season – 24 top-fives and 20 finishes among the top 10.

Harvick won career-high eight poles in 2014 and set qualifying records six times.

Harvick won the second Sprint Cup title for Stewart Haas Racing since its inception in 2009. The team won the championship with co-owner Tony Stewart in 2011.

But I daresay this year’s title has been far more satisfying. SHR has endured a difficult, controversial year. As you know, a grand jury would not indict Stewart after he struck and killed a driver in a Sprint Cup race in New York in August.

Kurt Busch faces allegations he assaulted his girlfriend in Dover in September. Investigation is ongoing.

It was Harvick’s championship that brought a new, positive focus to SHR and helped establish it as a quality team – despite its difficulties.

This might be Harvick’s first Sprint Cup title but he is no stranger to championships. He has eight driving titles in 33 years of racing.

He joins Bobby Labonte and Brad Keselowski as the only three drivers to have won Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series championships.

Harvick admitted that to win the title wasn’t easy. Prior to the Homestead race, he felt the pressure.

“The week ate me up,” Harvick said. “If it wasn’t for Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, I would have been in bad trouble. Those guys really helped me get through the week.

“I was a little anxious both days of practice, overdriving the car and not doing things I needed to do. After every practice, Jimmie was in there, and in our team debriefs Tony was constantly telling me just to go race and that it’s just another race.

“It was. It all worked out. I’m just really proud of everybody.”

Harvick did not join SHR until the start of this season. He spent 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, where he compiled a record of 23 wins, 100 top-five finishes and 209 among the top 10.

But changes were coming at RCR, including the emergence of Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon. So Harvick moved on.

And who could have predicted his first season at SHR would bring a championship?

“They gave us all the resources that we needed, and said, ‘Whatever you guys think you need, you go get,’ ” Harvick said. “We never talked about money, we never talked about any anything financial. It was just go get what you need.

“We built all brand new race cars, trucks, trailers with all new people. This format really helped us build through the year. We had really fast cars but it helped us build as a team.”

Harvick also acknowledged that the new Chase format was a boon and a success for him. – which is obvious.

“I think this Chase is about the best thing that has happened to this sport over the last decade,” he said. “This is probably going to shorten the drivers careers because it’s been so stressful.

“But I want to thank every single fan for sticking with this sport, and to the industry for working to get it right.”

 

 

 

 

 

Consistency Got Winless Newman Into Championship Final

Ryan Newman had to take a big chance on the last lap of the race in Phoenix to make it to the Chase final. He did so and was successful.

Ryan Newman had to take a big chance on the last lap of the race in Phoenix to make it to the Chase final. He did so and was successful.

There are some observers who say that Ryan Newman should not be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, much less one of the four drivers who are eligible to win this year’s championship.

Why? Because he has not won a race. And wasn’t this new Chase format designed to reward victory? It seems unreasonable for a driver who has not won to join three who have in the Chase’s final round at Homestead.

Yes, Newman hasn’t won. But he earned a berth in the finals not by victory, but by consistency. His steady, if unspectacular, performances in the Chase – and minimal involvement in accidents and mechanical maladies – not only kept him alive in each round of the Chase, but also moved him forward.

In the first three races of the Chase, known as the Challenger Round, Newman scored just one top-10 finish. Yet, overall, he was good enough to be in 9th place in points – comfortably among the 12 drivers that advanced.

In the next three races that composed the Contender Round, Newman fared much better. He didn’t have a finish below 7th and was solidly in third place among the eight drivers who moved ahead.

Then came the next three races known as the Eliminator Round. Newman started well with a third-place run at Martinsville but stumbled a bit when he finished 15th at Texas.

When that race was over Newman remained in third place but was only 10 points ahead of Jeff Gordon – which figured prominently in the round’s final race at Phoenix.

The final four was set thusly:

Kevin Harvick won the race and that granted him an automatic berth in the final.

Contenders Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano saved themselves with some gritty, determined racing. Both made up lost laps to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, and make it to Homestead.

Newman is winless this season but he has been solidly consistent, which put him into the Chase and a chance for the title.

Newman is winless this season but he has been solidly consistent, which put him into the Chase and a chance for the title.

Gordon was primed to be the fourth entry. He was running second to Harvick on the last lap. Newman was 12th and needed to pick up a single point, somehow, if he was going to make the final.

There is an unwritten rule in NASCAR that says when drivers are on the last lap and racing for a victory, rules don’t apply – well, at least for the most part.

What that means is one driver can nudge, shove, plow or root another out of the way to win a race. Wrecking him is a different story which creates immediate controversy – but it’s happened.

Newman had to do what he could. And what he did was to slide up into the side of Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet and send him high up the track, but not into the wall.

Newman finished 11th, good enough to remove Gordon from the Chase.

Newman, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, knew exactly what he was doing against Larson. He knew there was no other way.

“In the end we fought back hard, did what we had to as clean as I possibly could,” Newman said. “I wasn’t proud of it, but I will do what I got to do to make it to this next round. 

“Kyle Larson has got a lot of things coming in this sport.  He used me up like that at Eldora in a truck a couple of years ago.  From my standpoint I call it even, but I think if he was in my position he would have probably done the same thing.”

“It’s a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in, and can’t fault him for being aggressive there,” Larson said. “I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position.”

Newman has been criticized for his last-lap tactics but he stands by his strategy.

“I did what I had to do as clean as I could do it,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy to turn somebody, so I just drifted as much as I could to get in there. 

“My Chevy stuck on the apron and we made it.” Gordon, obviously, was not happy that he lost his last shot for at fifth career championship. But he did not blame Newman.“I don’t know if I’d say Newman wrecked him,” Gordon said. “He certainly ran him up the race track. That’s been OK everywhere we race.

“That’s the system that we have. Wait until next week when the championship is on the line. You’re going to see a lot more than that.

“That’s what NASCAR wants – to create intensity and interest and that’s what’s going to happen. You have to expect it.”

As said, some are not pleased that a winless Newman has a shot at a championship. Given that in its history no driver has ever won a title without winning a race, NASCAR is probably a bit concerned.

But what Newman has proven is that consistency is paramount in NASCAR. For years its point system was based exactly on that. It rewarded a driver who finished well week after week.

A competitor who regularly won a race and then tumbled to 40th in the next one never had a chance at the title.

Yes, the foundation of this Chase is victory.

But make no mistake – consistency is key. It was in the past and it remains so today.

 

 

 

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