The last month or so has been flat-out on all fronts. The month of December brought us many off-track milestones as Ryan Briscoe and Nicole (Manske) were married in Maui, Will Power got engaged to his longtime girlfriend Elizabeth (Cannon) and how about Helio becoming a daddy? There must be a lot of love around here and this is further proof that the world works in funny ways as Helio is going to spend the rest of his life protecting that beautiful girl from guys like him. It will be fun to watch!
With regard to the racing side of Penske, we have worked very hard in the last few months evaluating our people and hiring some of the best out there for not only our existing teams, but for our additional Nationwide Series program. I'm confident that we are better positioned going into 2010 than any other year. We just finished our first test with Kurt Busch and Steve Addington together while testing tires for Goodyear at Texas Motor Speedway. That's where we also got our first chance to run the new NASCAR spoiler package. The same week, we had Will back in the seat testing an Indy car at Sebring, following a Firestone tire test that Ryan did at Homestead just after the New Year.
Will obviously needed to get medical clearance to return to the car from Dr. Terry Trammell and this occurred just prior to Thanksgiving. We told Will, at that point, that there was no real hurry to get back in a racecar considering the season doesn't begin until March and the first series open test isn't until the end of February. Our theory was to get the holidays behind us to give him some extra time to get his strength up. It's one thing to have your bones heal, but it is another to be properly fit to drive a racecar, so we gave him another month and a half to get back in shape. We believe that strategy paid off, after knowing that Will was able to endure a day at Sebring as it is one of the most demanding racetracks in terms of a driver's fitness.
Will was a little rusty from not having been in a car since August, but physically there weren't any aches or pains beyond what you'd have expected having had no seat time for so long. There were no problems with his back, which is great news, and he had the chance to begin working again with his race engineer Dave Faustino. He and Dave had worked together a few years ago at KV Racing and at Walker Racing, so they both knew what to expect from each other. We accomplished what we wanted to in terms of getting Will back in the game. He ran a lot of laps and achieved consistent lap times but he needs a little more time to get his timing back. He will get this chance at Barber Motorsports Park this month.
Helio and Ryan will also get a chance to get on track again before the season, but not until the open test on Feb. 24 and 25. There are IndyCar testing rules that state a three-car team can run a total of 1,400 miles and 30 sets of tires, which must be utilized in no more than six test days. Although we can allocate them however we choose between the three cars, as a general rule, we try to save the bulk of our testing until the mid-to-latter part of the season. This is partly to ensure that we're working on things that need improvement relative to our competition, and it also allows us to focus our testing to suit the driver who has the best opportunity in the championship at that point.
Naturally, Helio is excited that the IZOD IndyCar Series opener is being held in the streets of his hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil. I've been asked a few times what I think about international IndyCar Series races and I believe there are two sides to this. Our current sponsors don't have much interest in those races and it really hasn't shown to be a successful business model for any U.S. open-wheel racing series. But, when you look at it from a racer's perspective, Brazil is a great place to go racing because, like Canada, the fans really love the sport. Obviously we have a Brazilian driver, and the series has Brazilian sponsors. For Helio, it's great that he's going to be racing in his home country. It's just that it really doesn't benefit us as a team in any way at this point.
While our last IndyCar Series test was obviously more focused on testing the driver, the recent NASCAR test at TMS was back to the performance objectives; specifically the tires and the rear spoiler that will replace the wing on the Cup Series car. Unfortunately, at the Texas test, rain shortened the second day and we probably only got around 90 minutes of running. Although we didn't get the chance to run in traffic, Kurt definitely thought the rear spoiler changed the handling characteristics as it freed the car up a bit all around, and that's something we can tune around. The typical complaints about the Car of Tomorrow have been that it's too free on entry, too tight in the middle and too loose off, so if you can free it up a bit all the way around, you can tune the entry and exit a bit better.
Overall, I'd say the rear spoiler will be a welcome change, but whenever there's change, there's opportunity. Although the timing of all of this – it's sounding like the rear spoiler will be re-introduced in Martinsville – is pretty inconvenient, it gives us a chance to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and that's really one of the biggest areas that define the winners in this sport.
Ever since the CoT's introduction, I've questioned why the decision was made to put a rear wing on a stock car as I always thought, going back to NASCAR's roots, that stock cars are supposed to emulate street cars, which typically have spoilers. But what do I know? I grew up around Indy cars.
As most of you know, Indy cars haven't had a spoiler for a long time and they certainly don't spend much time making rules for bump drafting. On that subject, it's great to see NASCAR's restrictions on bump drafting being lifted. From a fan's perspective, good racing generally comes from a lack of predictability; the less predictable the races are, the more entertaining they are. Well, bump drafting adds a bit more of the “What's going to happen next?” feeling. The drivers themselves were asking for the restrictions to be lifted, so if the guys who have to deal with it are OK with it, why shouldn't it be allowed?
Hopefully, that should stop some of the criticism that NASCAR took in the media last year. I never understood why those who are fortunate enough to make a living either going racing, or reporting on our sport, choose to criticize the sport itself. That's not to say that we need to sugar-coat anything; all I'd ask is that what's said is fair, because it obviously has a lot of influence on not only the sport, but also the people involved. I've always been a supporter of those who report the facts and form their opinions based on those facts. Commentators have a great deal of influence as they are delivering a perspective to those who generally rely on them for insight, so when they decide to cast something in a negative light, those of us who do know the landscape generally understand their motives.
Most of us are taught that if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. That's not aimed at sports commentators specifically, but it has more to do with respect and how you conduct yourself. It drives me crazy to hear some of those guys trying to make a name for themselves rather than researching the facts so they can give the fans the information they deserve. I've got all day for the ones who do their homework and come find us to at least give us a chance to give them what they need. Enough on that subject.
Since my last RACER column, we announced Steve Addington as crew chief on the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge and we are really excited to see how that combination is going to play out. We can already see a productive relationship forming, not only between he and Kurt, but between our three Cup Series crew chiefs. Steve, Jay Guy [on Brad Keselowski's No. 12 Penske Dodge] and Travis Geisler [on Sam Hornish Jr.'s No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge] have started to show signs of a productive chemistry between crew chiefs, which is better than I've ever seen within our team.
Thanks for reading, and the next time I reach out will be right after the IZOD IndyCar Series' open test in late February. By then, we'll also be able to reflect on the opening rounds of the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series seasons. Yes, we're finally getting back to the reason we do what we do!