...and we take a stab at solving it.
The biggest mystery in motorsports?
It’s not only why Roger Penske’s Fords are so fast – it’s how they have managed to maintain their advantage all season.
Yes, some NASCAR Sprint Cup Chevrolets are faster than other Chevys, and some Toyotas are faster than other Toyotas. But the pair of Penske Fords have performed at a level so far above the other Fords in the field that we all know something is going on – we just don’t know what it is.
Not that the fact Penske is good should come as a surprise. Just last year, Penske Racing moved from Dodge to Ford. What they did as the only Dodge team was astounding – they won the championship with Brad Keselowski.
(Of course, the biggest mystery in 2012 was how a manufacturer can win a championship with a lone two-car team, then fold the program, but I’ve beaten that dead horse to a pulp.)
The first indication that Penske might be a different kind of Ford team may have been a casual remark made when I visited the Shell-Pennzoil labs in Houston as part of a Formula One event. Penske had just signed on with Ford, and Shell-Pennzoil made the oil for both Penske and Roush Fenway cars. I mentioned to an engineer that I suppose, at that level, oil is oil, and both Penske and Roush would want the same formulation. Oh, no, he said: Penske’s blend is different from everybody’s.
Not that oil is remotely the reason why Penske’s Fords are running so much better than everybody else’s, but I think it’s indicative that while Penske is part of the Ford family, Roger and his guys live in a separate wing of the house. Bumper to bumper, Penske Racing looks at every nut and bolt and bracket and optimizes them toward a common goal.
The drivers are good, sure...
Make no mistake: I’m taking nothing away from Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano – they’re good. But so are Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, and with a pair of Nationwide championships and now enough Sprint Cup experience to where he’s raced at every track on the circuit multiple times, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. should be better.
This year, Logano has four wins, 13 top fives, 18 top tens. Keselowski has five wins, 13 top fives, 16 top tens.
Carl Edwards has had a good year – two wins, six top fives, 11 top tens. But the wins were at Bristol and Sonoma, neither track typical of the balance of the Sprint Cup season. Biffle has had three top fives, Stenhouse one. So 26 top fives for the two Penske Fords, 10 for the three Roush Fords.
No question, then, that this year, Penske is Ford’s A team, Roush is the B team, and Richard Petty Motorsports is the C team. With a little luck, a lot of talent and sheer force of will, Petty’s Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola have had a darn good year, but they are still way, way behind Penske.
It has been difficult to watch, for instance, how hard Greg Biffle has struggled. He is a talented, smart racer, who probably understands how these Cup cars work as well as any driver.
And when I asked him earlier this year where the Penske cars are beating him, he said it definitely isn’t horsepower – everybody is getting the same engines. “It’s that they can put the power down quicker than we can, and stay on the power longer than we can.”
Given the general transparency of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, and how many common parts and specifications there are, there can’t be that many explanations for why Penske’s cars are so much better. Aero? No. Tires? The same. Brakes? No. Transmission? Clutch? Traction control? No, no, and I sure hope not.
At that level, everybody has enough time in the wind tunnel and on the shaker rigs to at least be on the same chapter, if not the same page. As an engineer at Hendrick told me as his seven-post shaker rig clinked and clanked next to us with one of Jeff Gordon’s cars on it: “We picked the low-hanging fruit a long, long time ago.” Once they looked for tenths of a second, then hundredths, now a thousandth here and there.
But Penske has found a lot of thousandths. And they’ve kept it secret all season. Usually somebody figures it out, or lacking that, an employee who knows, jumps ship to a different team for a big increase in salary. But Logano and Keselowski just keep going faster, and Ford drivers like Greg Biffle keep getting more and more depressed.
Biffle beaten down
After his 21st-place finish at Dover, and being eliminated from the Chase, this is what Biffle said: “This is the way it’s gone all season. We’re just searching for speed and struggled all day today. We’ve worked hard trying to fix our problems, but it just hasn’t come together yet. It’s frustrating because part of you wants to just pull it and put it in the garage and the other half is racing as hard as you can to get in the Chase. It’s pretty frustrating. I’ve won races my whole career, but to be struggling like this all year is disappointing at best.”
Indeed, Dover was typical of the season for Ford: Penske had a disappointing (for them) day with Brad Keselowski second, Joey Logano fourth.
Then in 11th, Carl Edwards; 19th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.; 21st, Greg Biffle; 26th, Marcos Ambrose; 28th, Aric Almirola; 31st, David Ragan, and 33rd, David Gilliland.
So what has Penske found that the other Ford teams haven’t? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is a shock package. There really isn’t that much wiggle room in Sprint Cup to freelance on your car’s suspension, but shock specialists are still able to play a little in the black arts, and combined with exactly the right springs – well, I just don’t see much else that could allow, as Biffle describes it, the Penske cars to get into and out of corners faster than the other Fords.
But the fact that whatever it is remains proprietary knowledge – that’s the biggest mystery of all.
All things the same, it could be a long, chilly winter for Jack Roush. But things are not the same for 2015: NASCAR is making a lot of changes to the cars for next season, and some of them might end up send the Penske engineers once again looking for an advantage.
Or not. When it comes to betting against Roger Penske, I keep my money in my wallet.