Archive for Racing Guy Features

Penske did it once with Dodges, can he do it again with Fords?

 

By Jerry Bonkowski for TheRacingGuy.com

No sooner does a driver win a Sprint Cup championship, and then many observers almost simultaneously ask the same question.

“Can he win it again next year?”

That’s the million-dollar question that follows the multi-million dollar championship check a driver wins for being the best of the best in a given season.

That question has already been bantered around countless times regarding reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

Will he be able to repeat in 2013?

Even with Penske Racing’s switch from Dodge to Ford in 2013, even with a new updated version of the Car of Tomorrow, and even with other teams ratcheting up their own respective games for next season, there’s no reason why Keselowski can’t repeat as champ in 2013, given the organization and personnel he has behind him, the same group that led him to his first Cup title this past season.

What’s it going to take? Essentially, more of the same of what he did in 2012, and potentially a bit more to make him stand out from the crowd in 2013.

That means at least four or five wins (he won five in 2012), steady if not improved consistency (13 top fives and 23 top 10s in 2012) and to keep his motivation high even in the face of disappointment or a few bad finishes in a row.

But perhaps the most significant thing that Keselowski can do in the short term is to get off to a great start when the new season starts. Granted, that’s easier said than done, but at the same time, look at how Carl Edwards flopped in 2012 after such an outstanding season in 2011, losing the championship by a mere one-point tie-breaker.

What Keselowski needs to do is be as aggressive as he ever has. He has to shake opposing drivers up, rattle some cages and show that he will do whatever it takes to defend his title in 2013.

He also needs to get as much seat and test time behind the wheel prior to Speedweeks at Daytona. Foremost, he and crew chief Paul Wolfe need to learn every little nuance they can about the new, so-called Generation 6 Car of Tomorrow.

The last thing Keselowski can afford to do is fall behind the learning curve, much like Jeff Gordon and several others struggled during the first advent of the COT in 2008. The more Gordon and the others struggled, the further they fell behind until things finally began to come together around mid-season, particularly when teams began revisiting racetracks for the second go-round of the year.

The other part of the equation is in the motor department at Penske Racing. Instead of developing and building its own engines as it did under the Dodge banner, Penske Racing will be receiving ready made and fully assembled Ford powerplants purchased from Roush Fenway Racing and master motor builder Doug Yates.

That’s the unknown that remains to be seen. Will Penske engineers and motor gurus try to tweak already potent Yates-built engines in the hopes of gaining a bit more muscle? Or will Penske officials stand pat and see what the Yates-built motors will do and how they’ll perform in the first several races of the new season?

Therein lies the rub of sorts. If Penske Racing takes a wait and see approach to essentially let the Yates-built powerplants sell themselves, that could spell potential trouble early on in the season for Keselowski and new teammate Joey Logano.

On the other hand, if the Ford motors are as powerful as they’re supposed to be, Penske Racing should have the same across the board power in theory as the lead organization in the Ford stable, Roush Fenway Racing.

Thus far, the powerplants in the Penske Racing Fords seem to be producing bountiful horsepower.  But that’s only been in testing – and limited testing at that.

There will be more testing upcoming in January, including at Daytona, as teams continue to shake out the new style car, no matter if it’s a Ford, Chevrolet or Toyota. Teams will also have numerous one- and two-day tests at non-NASCAR tracks to continue gathering data on how the new chassis works and adapts to different conditions, as well as how the motors will work in them, as well.

Remember, the reconfigured body styles are more aerodynamic, slightly smaller and will have less aero push than last season’s cars. From a motor standpoint, that will require a bit of adjustment so that the motors don’t overpower the chassis, or vice-versa.

And that adjustment, especially during preseason testing, will likely spell a significant amount of difference in determining how teams will perform and adapt once the races start counting for points. Most teams are hoping that they have a handle on things and most elements figured out heading into Daytona, or by the third or fourth race, at the very least.

On paper, every team will be on the same page heading into the new season more so than they were heading into last season, as well. Which teams adapt the fastest and dial in the new car the quickest will have a marked advantage that will carry them through the early part of the season and potentially allow them to stay ahead for quite some time until the other teams catch up – if they can, that is.

So, getting back to our original question, can Keselowski repeat as Sprint Cup Series champ in 2013? Yes, he can. It will take a lot more preparatory work heading into 2013 with the new Fords than Penske Racing had to do with its Dodges going into 2012.

But given what it did with those Dodges as the only major organization to race them last season, something tells me that Penske magic will pick right up with the new Fords, too, next season.

Why Not Danica in the Chase?

 

By Jerry Bonkowski

For TheRacingGuy.com

In a recent slideshow column I wrote for BleacherReport.com, I put forth the belief that Danica Patrick could potentially make the Chase for the Sprint Cup within three to five years.

The response from fans was quick and, oftentimes, brutal.

“Are you nuts?” “Are you smoking crack?” “Ha ha ha ha ha. That’s a good one.”

Trust me, some responses were much worse, but we’ll leave it at that.

But the fact remains, why can’t Danica make the Chase?

I know this comes as somewhat of a shock, coming from someone who once wrote Danica was nothing more than “flesh and flash” during her IndyCar days.

But I saw something in her during the 2012 season that has made me do a complete 180-degree turn in my belief of her abilities and her prospects for success in NASCAR.

Sure, she still makes mistakes – who can forget her attempt to wreck Landon Cassell, only to wreck herself instead – but Patrick’s learning curve has begun to accelerate in my mind.

During her Nationwide stint for JR Motorsports – two part-time seasons and a full-time campaign in 2012 – to me it seemed Patrick just wasn’t getting the equipment and leadership that a driver needs for success. That’s not to say JRM was a bad place for her; it just didn’t seem to be the right place.

But now that she’s with Stewart Haas Racing and about to embark upon her first full-time season in Sprint Cup, Patrick essentially has all the parts, pieces and people that she needs for stock car racing success.

She not only has Tony Stewart as both a boss and teammate, she has folks like crew chief Tony Gibson, as well as Greg Zipadelli, Matt Borland and Ryan Newman to lean upon for advice and guidance. Plus, with SHR being a satellite team of sorts for Hendrick Motorsports, Patrick also has top-of-the-line equipment. Sure, she still has to do the job behind the wheel, but it helps when you have an all-star team that’s got your back.

It probably would have been more in Patrick’s best interest to log one more season in Nationwide Series racing, but it is what it is. She has a high-dollar sponsor in GoDaddy.com that wants results, not to have her spend another year on NASCAR’s AAA level. It wants her in NASCAR’s major leagues, to not only illustrate what she can do, but also for the attention and notoriety she is bound to attract for both herself and her sponsor as a result.

In a way, you can draw a comparison between Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. When Junior first went to Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, the general consensus was that he finally had the equipment and organization behind him that he needed for success.

While things haven’t exactly worked out as Earnhardt, Rick Hendrick and others had hoped, he did make big strides during the 2012 season (except for the Chase, of course) and shows promise of coming out of the gate in 2013 with the potential of having an even better season.

All the elements for success are there for Junior, and it’s the same way with Patrick at SHR. Sure, she has a long learning curve still ahead of her, but if there’s one thing I have learned in over a quarter-century of covering racing, it’s that a driver who is surrounded by successful personnel in the organization tends to achieve success himself or herself more readily than with an organization that may not be quite as successful.

In other words, driving with Stewart and Newman (and Kevin Harvick starting in 2014) as her teammates, Patrick not only has role models to follow, their direct success has the potential to rub off on her. “If they can do it, I can do it,” I can imagine Patrick thinking to herself during the upcoming season.

I also mentioned in my column that I expect Patrick to finish the 2013 Sprint Cup season somewhere between 20th and 25th place. That’s not a heady expectation, but it’s realistic. And then in 2014, I can see her finishing somewhere around 15th, potentially setting up a run at the Chase in 2015 or 2016.

The going will not be easy for Patrick both on and off the track. She’s going to be involved in more than her share of incidents this upcoming season. She’s going to likely face some macho prejudice from opponents, to the point where she’s likely going to be picked upon by at least a few drivers.

But at the same time, that should strengthen Patrick’s resolve and further stoke her determination to succeed.

Could I be wrong about her making the Chase, let alone even coming close to making it over the next three to five years? Sure, I could, and if that happens I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong.

But regardless of the fact that she’s female, Patrick is a racer first and foremost. I increasingly noticed during her 2012 Nationwide season performance that while the wheels of progress moved slowly for her, they still moved nonetheless.

And now with SHR, she’s in a position to make some serious progress. Call it an acceleration of her learning curve. Granted, bringing Patrick onboard made business sense for Stewart and his organization, given the deep pockets of GoDaddy. But at the same time, Stewart would not bring in a driver to his organization unless he believed that driver could succeed.

He did so with Ryan Newman, he’s going to do so again with Harvick in 2014, and he’s doing so with Patrick in 2013. Who knows, she may even surprise us and win a race this season. If that happens, trust me, the Patrick talk will quickly not only ratchet up, it’ll also potentially change some naysayers to believers – or at the very least, cause them to give Patrick more of the benefit of doubt.

As she progresses, Patrick will take steps along the way. First is to get fully acclimated to the higher speeds and greater competitiveness of Sprint Cup racing. Second is to start performing better, which will come in time – and it could take more than three to five years. I mean, look at someone like Juan Pablo Montoya, like Patrick a fellow expatriate of the IndyCar ranks. He’s still struggling after six seasons in Cup.

One thing, however, must be kept in mind. Even if she does make the Chase in the next three to five years, Patrick isn’t necessarily a shoe-in to win the championship.

That’s a whole other set of steps to make. So for now, let Patrick focus just on getting to the Chase dance first. And then everything after that will be a bonus.

What Might Have been for Tony Stewart

By Jerry Bonkowski For TheRacingGuy.com –

The racing world typically goes into hibernation once the final lap of the Sprint Cup season is run and the championship trophy is awarded.

But ever since last Friday’s NASCAR Awards Banquet in Las Vegas, the entire motorsports world – not just NASCAR, but including IndyCar, Formula One, NHRA and pretty much any other form of racing – was abuzz about Roger Penske offering a ride in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 to Tony Stewart.

Penske wasn’t joking, he was totally serious about not only fielding a ride for Stewart, but also being part of what would have been a third attempt for Stewart at the so-called “Double”: running the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.

Think of it, after running 500 miles at Indy, you hop on a plane, fly to Charlotte, climb behind the wheel of a stock car and race another 600 miles, a grand total of 1,100 miles of racing.

That is, provided you don’t wreck out at either place – or both.

Penske, known at times for his wry humor, wasn’t joking when he made the offer to Stewart. Race fans have been talking constantly and excitedly about the possibility since then. Indianapolis Motor Speedway even started an online petition that saw several hundred signatures in just the first hour alone, all imploring Stewart to do the Double.

No question about it, everyone wanted Tony.

Unfortunately, Tony has responded to Penske’s offer loud and clear: he won’t be doing the Double this year, next year or likely any time ever again.

How disappointing for race fans of all ages. Stewart back doing the Double – he did it in 1999 and again in 2001 – would have created an incredible vibe not only in Indianapolis, but also Charlotte. It would have been a great promotional event, not to mention likely generate a significant increased interest in both races, not to mention likely providing a healthy bump to ticket sales at both ends of the grueling event.

But I understand why Stewart said “thanks, but no thanks” to Penske – and he’s someone you don’t turn down very easy, indeed.

If Stewart were still racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, like he did in his first two Double stints, he likely would do it again. But this is a new, more mature and responsible Stewart. He’s not just simply a driver anymore, he owns three Sprint Cup teams, not to mention several dirt track and sprint car teams. All told, Stewart has several hundred employees in his burgeoning business empire that are dependent upon him for their livelihoods.

Sure, Stewart grew up 50 miles south of Indianapolis and always dreamed of winning there – which he ultimately did twice, just not the Indianapolis 500, but rather in NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.

It now appears that will be the closest Stewart will ever get to running again in the 500, otherwise known as the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsports.

Stewart has too much to lose if he were to compete in the Double. What happens if, God forbid, he got hurt at Indianapolis and couldn’t race in NASCAR for an extended period of time. Would that be fair to his sponsors – even if those same sponsors had greenlighted him to race at Indy?

Further, Stewart many not always be the master of seriousness at times, but he was spot on when he said Thursday to USA Today that he just had too many responsibilities and was simply too busy than to go and play IndyCar driver once again for the first time in nearly 12 years.

Even more, Stewart was quite pragmatic when he talked about how much Indy cars and IndyCar racing have changed. If he were to do the Double right, particularly the 500 part of it, he couldn’t just hop behind the wheel and go out and win the race. At the very least, Stewart would need a great deal of time to not reacquaint himself to an open-wheel car, particularly practicing and getting up to speed to qualify and make the show.

Remember, just because he’s Tony Stewart doesn’t mean he would be guaranteed a spot in the 500. He’d have to go out like every other driver and earn a spot on the grid by qualifying and making the race.

And then there’s the age factor. The last time Stewart ran the Double, he was 30 years old. Now, he’s 41 and will be 42 by the time the 2013 edition of the 500 is held. Face it, he’s not a young pup anymore.

Add all those elements together and it’s pretty easy to see why Stewart said no to a man who’s not used to being told no.

At the same time, I’m sure Penske understands Stewart’s decision. After all, he’s a life-time racer and owner and understands the difference between racing and business. While one oftentimes complements the other, there are also times that they can’t infringe on one another.

This is one of those times. Stewart may be humbled to be offered a ride with a team that has won the Indy 500 a record 15 times.

But at the same time, if Stewart really wanted to do the Double again since 2001, I’m sure he could have found a way and a year between then and now where the situation would have been right.

Heck, he could probably have gotten a ride with his all-time racing idol, A.J. Foyt, but that never materialized – if it was ever even a semblance of an idea.

Stewart probably could have had his pick of rides with other teams, but again, it never materialized.

Perhaps more than at any other time since he last did Indy and Charlotte together on the same fateful day in 2001, when he finished sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte, Stewart has made peace with himself that running at Indy again, let alone the Double, just isn’t for him anymore.

Ten years ago, saying that might have been incomprehensible from someone like Stewart, who for so many years, Indy was the end-all and be-all as both a fan and driver.

But this is a different time for Stewart, he’s in a different and happier place in his life, he has significantly more responsibility and doesn’t do anything unless he gives it a great deal of thought and consideration.

Just because Penske offered him a ride, it didn’t take Stewart five days to think about his response. He actually made it in 2001 when he did the Double for the last time – and what likely will remain the final time – in his storied career.