Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Penske Power Kurt Busch may have backed into Atlanta's victory lane by taking a celebration lap aboard his Dodge in reverse. But judging from Busch's dominating performance in the race, Penske Racing certainly...
Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Kurt Busch may have backed into Atlanta's victory lane by taking a celebration lap aboard his Dodge in reverse. But judging from Busch's dominating performance in the race, Penske Racing certainly has its act together. Is this the year we'll see Penske finally claim a first NASCAR championship?
It's way too early to be predicting a Sprint Cup title. But prior to the Atlanta weekend, where Busch led 234 of the 330 laps in his Miller Lite Charger, most of the title talk centered on the teams with the most drivers in last year's Chase and the Penske name was not included. After dominating on an intermediate track like Atlanta, suddenly Penske looks very stout.
"We've won a lot of races," said team owner Roger Penske in the post-race media conference when asked about his team's standing. "I think Penske Racing ranks with the Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush and Childress teams."
Penske has won an impressive number of events in NASCAR's premier series in addition to his success in Indy cars and sports car racing. Busch's win in Atlanta was the team's 63rd trip to victory lane since Mark Donohue first put Penske into the NASCAR winner's circle with an AMC Matador at Riverside in 1973.
But in the last three seasons since Busch joined the team in 2006, the team has sent a driver to the Chase just once. Busch, the winner of the inaugural Chase in 2004 with Jack Roush's Ford team, finished a distant seventh in 2007.
Last year, Busch and now departed teammate Ryan Newman came home 17th and 18th in the points with only one victory apiece, albeit Newman finally brought Penske a Daytona 500 trophy.
The team owner is always quick to point out the loyalty of his team members. But privately, other sources within Penske Racing's front office have mentioned the team didn't have all the right personnel in its Mooresville shops when it came to the NASCAR side. The departure of Newman to Tony Stewart's new partnership with Gene Haas underscored the dissatisfaction of at least one employee, a winner of eight races with Penske in 2003, the first year the team employed Dodges.
There are a number of reasons behind the turnaround. Having added a third entry for Sam Hornish with full Mobil 1 sponsorship since last year, the Penkse team has had more resources to develop Dodge's new R6 engine better than any other team. While Richard Petty Motorsports has been hesitant to use the R6 out of concern for durability, the Penske team has pumped out the horsepower as evidenced by Busch's dominance in Atlanta.
Dodge has also introduced a new nose for the Charger this year. The two Dodge teams are quick to point out the new nose is not a magic bullet. But clearly it has enabled teams to add better downforce at the front end and achieve the necessary over-all balance, an area where Dodge teams had been frustrated even before the COT arrived.
In a season when testing on tracks hosting Sprint Cup races is prohibited, the Penkse team has deep expertise in computer simulations, in part due to its background with Indy cars and sports cars. Like all of the major teams with ample budgets, laysoffs were limited at Penske.
"When you look back at the tremendous improvement we've made," said "Penske, you can see how committed we've been to the engine and the "chassis."
As for team chemistry, after Newman's departure it's clear that Busch is the team's number one driver versus Hornish or David Stremme. "There are not many drivers who can hold a candle to Kurt," says Penske. Indeed, Busch has won at least one race each season with Penkse -- and he was the driver who bump-drafted Newman to victory at Daytona.
When it comes to motivation, Busch need look no further than younger brother Kyle, who had eight wins last year in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing and is currently being touted as NASCAR's next great driver on the same plane with Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt Sr. and Gordon. There's a catch, of course. Kurt has already scored a championship and Kyle has yet to catch fire during the Chase.
"With Kyle winning all the time, I feel like I need to hold up my end of the bargain," said Kurt. "He's really been on the gas."
The same can be said for a revitalized older brother, who hammered around Atlanta's broad banks next to the wall on a day when drivers were again slipping and sliding on a worn surface due to the top-heavy COT chassis, Goodyear's difficulty resolving the new car's handling characteristics and the high speeds. He was so close to the wall, in fact, he hit it twice.
"When the track starts chewing up tyres, you have to find a different place to run," said Busch. "The way my car was handling, when I was up by the wall I was grinning ear to ear."
From the looks of things, it won't be the last time the older Busch's smiling visage appears in victory lane this year.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.