It’s no mystery how successful Roger Penske has been in motorsports. He’s won all those Indianapolis 500s as an owner. He’s won a XFINITY and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. His No. 22 car last year with Joey Logano was the odds-on-favorite when the Chase started to win the 2015 championship until his title hopes got taken out by Matt Kenseth at Martinsville in October.
Roger demands the highest standards from all his employees and himself, actually. Back in the day when I had my own shop, some fans came through and told me, "DW, this place is Penske-clean." That was a huge compliment to me as I tried to emulate obviously what was a winning formula from the man we all call "The Captain."
When I heard Brad Keselowski in his post-race comments in Victory Circle quote his boss, Roger Penske, that "effort equals results," well, that really resonated with me. You see, I had talked to Brad on Friday and he admitted that they hadn’t been happy with their cars to date in 2016. Brad said the inconsistency was hurting them from the way the cars ran and handled.
This is what separates the great leaders and teams from the rest of the field. The owner didn’t blame the driver. The driver didn’t blame the crew chief. The crew chief didn’t blame the engineers and the rest of his crew. Collectively, they came together and realized the problem was the sum of all the parts. Collectively, they attacked it that way to come up with solutions across the board.
We all know and have seen it in the past that sometimes it takes weeks and months. Unfortunately for folks at Roush Fenway Racing, it’s taken a few years, but we’re starting now to see them be more consistent and more competitive. That’s not only great for their sponsors and organizations, but it’s great for the sport.
In the case of Team Penske, it only took a few days. They all got together and worked together for the common goal. Well, I’m here to tell you that effort equals results and you saw it Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Team Penske finished first and second. On top of that, their second-year alliance partner, the famous Wood Brothers No. 21 car driven by Rookie of the Year contender Ryan Blaney, finished sixth. You combine those three finishes and you can’t be anything but impressed.
We had all kinds of weather issues with the wind and sand storm that Mother Nature threw at those drivers, let alone the level of competition the Penske cars faced. Look at that last restart, for example, when Kyle Busch rocketed from sixth to take the lead. Brad was still able to chase him down and get his first win in almost a year.
I know that was a huge shot in the arm for Brad and his team. The longer a championship driver goes between wins really starts to weigh on you and your confidence. Brad hadn’t won since Auto Club Speedway last year while he watched his teammate, Joey Logano, win a lot last year and, as mentioned earlier, had a legitimate shot at winning the 2015 championship. So with renewed confidence in himself, I only look for that No. 2 car to get stronger.
In the same breath, I think we all should keep our eyes on that No. 21 car with young Ryan Blaney in it. This is their first year back running full time. The chemistry and routine of racing every week don’t fall into place that quickly after you’ve gone a number of years racing part time as the Wood Brothers have. I just think the sky’s the limit for the No. 21 with their alliance to Team Penske and young Blaney behind the wheel.
I tell folks that Ryan is an old soul in a young body. When I talk with him, listen to his interviews, watch the way he carries himself and the way he races actually, he is so much more mature than his young age indicates. Sixth place for them Sunday at Las Vegas was huge. I just think collectively as they all get back in the swing of racing full time, we’ll see that No. 21 car surprise a lot of folks. I used to race against that No. 21 car back in the day against a guy by the name of Pearson. If this young man can even be half as good as the Silver Fox in that No. 21 car, well, he’s going to need sunglasses because his future is extremely bright.
The other Rookie of the Year contender, Chase Elliott, was coming off his first top 10-finish from two weeks ago in Atlanta. He was having another solid run in the top 10 but got taken out in a wreck. Unfortunately, it was his second wreck in three races. He was pretty hard on himself after Sunday’s race, but he can’t forget that in all three of these 2016 races, he’s been having solid runs but only has one good finish to show for it so far. I just think he needs to put together a couple races with some solid finishes to get his confidence back up.
Look, these are rookies we’re talking about. They are going to have ups and downs. There’s a reason there is a yellow stripe on their bumper. We’ve all gone through it. The key is not letting the highs get too high and definitely not letting the lows get too low. You have to find the ability to put a bad race behind you and look to the next race. That just comes with time and experience. Just like young Blaney, Chase Elliott’s future is equally as bright.
I also think none of us are giving young Austin Dillon in that No. 3 car enough credit. That young man is flying under the radar and I think all of us better start paying attention. He had another great run Sunday. He led a couple of laps and finished fifth. While it’s his first top five of the season, it’s his third consecutive top 10 of the year. Yes, it’s too early in the season to put much stock in it, but take a look at who is 10th in the points and you’ll see young Mr. Dillon’s name. Like Roush Fenway Racing, I just think the changes that car owner Richard Childress has made over there at RCR are reaping some early-season benefits.
I think it’s safe to say that the jury is still out on this low-downforce package. Remember that the restrictor-plate race at Daytona is run under a different rules package, so these drivers and teams have only raced this low-downforce package now twice last year and twice this year. I think we need to get through a handful more races like Phoenix this weekend, then Fontana and then Martinsville. I think then we’ll really know what we have because this package will have been raced on all different shapes and sizes of tracks.
Right now today, I have to say I really haven’t seen that big of a difference. I say that because when you reduce the downforce on a race car yet bring a softer tire that is going to give you more grip, what have you gained? They basically offset each other and the cars are going to go fast. We set another new track record at Las Vegas last weekend, and I think we will do it at more tracks this season.
Again, we’ve only seen this package four times so far, but the cars seem to race just like they did under the old rules package. The positive thing the drivers are telling me is that, yes, they are seeing a difference in being able to catch the car ahead of them, and in most cases are able to pass them. Now granted, that is a positive, but in the same breath they aren’t seeing the dramatic results that maybe everyone had expected from this rules package.
My point is, again, we need to get more races under our belts first. There’s more work and development to be done. I don’t think anyone should throw in the towel on this new package yet. I just think we need to give it more time and let’s see how it develops. Maybe it will improve, which I hope, but also it might turn out to be more of the same. It’s just too early yet, and we simply don’t know.
What is a positive in my book is we’ve had three different races in 2016 that have produced three different winners with three different manufacturers. That’s a level playing field in my book. Honestly, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if after Sunday here in Phoenix we don’t have a fourth different winner in 2016.
I still feel a renewed sense of excitement in our sport. When I talk to the drivers in the garage I feel that vibe. The fans definitely have it. There’s a reason why NASCAR fans are the best in all of professional sports. Over the years I’ve seen them sit through rain, snow, hail, and now after Sunday, both wind and sand to show their support to their favorite driver.
I know our FOX NASCAR gang is having a lot of fun and feel the same excitement. Just like these race teams with this new rules package, we, too, are going through an adjustment period. Larry McReynolds is getting more and more comfortable in his new role. Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and I are having a lot of fun. I love having Jeff up in the booth with us. Some of you have tweeted suspecting there’s friction, but trust me, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Just because we don’t agree on everything doesn’t mean I don’t like him and he doesn’t like me. Who wants a booth where they all think, sound and act alike? I sure don’t. For example, he thinks leaving the pit-road speed the way it is works. I happen to think having a pit road speed limiter on the cars like other series would be a better way to go. So we disagree. So what?
Jeff has brought a new excitement to our booth. I’ve been doing this for 16 years and he’s like young Blaney or Chase Elliott. He brings a fresh perspective. He makes Mike Joy and I step up our game, and there is not a single thing wrong with that. He’s going to challenge me on ideas and I’m going to do the same to him. To me that is fun and refreshing. As the three of us said last Sunday to each other as we were leaving the booth, we are really enjoying ourselves. The really cool thing is, again, like these race teams with his rules package, we are only going to get better.
Finally, I thought it was interesting that Furniture Row Racing has decided to drop its appeal of the NASCAR roof-flap penalty from Atlanta two weeks ago. Crew chief Cole Pearn will serve out his one-race suspension and won’t be at Phoenix this weekend. I just think the really cool dynamic is that with Furniture Row’s new Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing alliance for 2016, JGR is loaning Furniture Row its former crew chief, Todd Berrier, for this weekend’s race. Todd was crew chief over at Furniture Row for a while. He left there and went to work for Joe Gibbs Racing, but now he’s back calling the shots for this weekend.
I just think it’s another unique aspect of what sets our sport apart from all the other professional sports. To me it’s almost like a throwback to the old NASCAR that when a competitor needed something, another team would step up and help. A former crew chief being loaned to his old team is just an amazing storyline we need to follow Sunday.
You thought we had sand on Sunday in Las Vegas, well, we are really off to the desert this weekend out here in Phoenix. That racetrack is a challenge for anyone. While it’s a 1-mile track, most teams attack it like a short track. Heck, even turns 1 and 2 aren’t the same as turns 3 and 4. I call it a hybrid because I don’t think there is another track like it on the circuit. Believe it or not, you actually go UP a little bit of a hill going down the back straightaway and then you go down a little hill off into the third turn. That’s a very challenging track, plus as we know, it’s normally Kevin Harvick’s playground. Kevin’s sitting here with three top-10 finishes in three races of 2016, and I know Sunday can’t get here fast enough for him.
This is a race with some urgency. I say that because it’s a short race. Believe it or not, this race has been run in under three hours before, so when you unload from the hauler, you better be pretty darn close to perfect. A short race means fewer stops on pit road to work on your car, so you better be dialed in when the green flag waves. These drivers all realize that, and so for those in the back, they have got to find a way to the front quickly. It will be a bunch of hungry hounds racing to the lead Sunday, and we’ll just have to wait to see who comes out as Top Dog.