We're delighted to add Penske Racing boss Tim Cindric to the fold of RACER columnists. First up, Tim offers his thoughts on the team's NASCAR season and new recruit Brad Keselowski. -Ed.
Here we go! This is all new to me, so hopefully I get it right and give you something worthwhile to read. It's good that I'm able to start this new column during an exciting time here at Penske Racing, with our IndyCar Series operation expanding to three full-time cars, and our NASCAR operation expanding to a two-car team in the Nationwide Series. For us to be able to do this while the world is still in an economic crisis says a lot about our sponsorship partners as well as their faith in Roger's operation.
In light of the recent hiring of our crew chiefs for Brad Keselowski in both the Nationwide and Cup Series, let's start with the NASCAR side of things first. Some people might have been surprised to learn that Brad was going to compete in the whole Nationwide season as well as Cup, but it was something he really wanted to do and the fact that we were able to offer this opportunity to him gave us a leg up when he was weighing his opportunities for 2010. He will be the first to admit that he has a lot to learn and he feels that running a Nationwide program will help him understand the tracks better, how the tracks change over the course of a race and so on. Nationwide is something he's been successful with in the past, so he regards this as a known quantity, a benchmark, a frame of reference that will help boost his performances in Cup. Of course, Justin Allgaier now having a teammate in our Nationwide effort is one of the benefits of this program for us, but it wasn't the catalyst for us adding another team.
We're going to have a much brighter spotlight on us in the Nationwide Series next season. To be honest, this year we had built-in excuses! We'd never run a full season of NNS before, and we were tackling it with a rookie driver. Our No. 1 goal this year was for Justin to win the Rookie of the Year title, and if we did that, we knew it would bring some good results along the way.
Well, we did have more successes early on than we were expecting, which led to some future expectations that I'm afraid we didn't really see through. Based on our early results, we expected to get Justin (at right, with crew chief Chad Walter) in the winner's circle, but somehow that eluded us. (Vice president of operations) Mike Nelson and Chad Walter put together a really good team and we can look back on 2009 and view it as a good year, but next year we have to achieve more.
We need both Justin and Brad contending for the championship and, to do that, running top-15 is not going to be enough. We need to be mixing it up in the top-five every race and the top-10 on an average day. We certainly won't lack aggression, as anyone who's watched Brad's races this year will agree! There's been a lot of publicity about him, especially with his new-found friendship with Denny Hamlin and a couple of other drivers, but I think Brad walks the line a lot better than some of these guys. He's not out to be the guy with the black hat all the time. He understands the sport enough to know that he needs to earn the respect of his competitors, and at the same time he must have the right fan base and relationship with the media.
Sometimes those younger, harder-edged drivers don't tend to be team players, but in a very short period of time we've seen that Brad can be a team player much more than people give him credit for. To what extent we don't know yet, but the guy doesn't win at both the Nationwide and the Cup level and get voted Most Popular Driver in the Nationwide Series two consecutive seasons without having a lot going for him. It takes more than just on-track results to achieve those accolades.
Of course, one of the questions the media is pondering is who will replace Pat Tryson as Kurt Busch's crew chief. I can tell you that we have it narrowed it down to two or three and it should be announced around the middle of this month, but we haven't yet made a final decision. Watch here on RACER.com, between now and the holidays, for the latest news.
The reason that it's such a big question, though, is because we gained real momentum with the No. 2 car this year – going from 18th in the 2008 standings to finishing fourth this year was a big turnaround. Essentially it was the same team, although having Dave Winston as race engineer (he came to us from Red Bull), added a lot to our organization. But the big focus for 2009 – aside from always striving for better cars and better engines, of course! – was to take our bad days and make them not nearly as bad. When I say that, look at how many 30th-or-worse finishes we had in '08 (14 of them), they were why we didn't make the Chase last year. We had too many terrible days. This year, we minimized those, so our bad days became top-20 days instead of 30th or worse. That was key to putting ourselves in contention for the Chase.
As for Sam Hornish Jr., if you looked purely at the number of top-fives and top-10s, you'd expect him to have finished much closer to the top 20. I think Sam's really taken notice of Kurt's results last year versus this year. The 30th-or-worse finishes are what's driving the overall result, given the NASCAR points system, and Sam saw that firsthand this year. He'd tell you that his big focus in 2010 is to emulate the No. 2 car's turnaround. That will be achieved if we ensure that when something goes wrong, something else doesn't make it even worse.
One of the interesting aspects in 2010 will be Penske Racing becoming the only full-time team running Dodge engines. The benefits are obvious: Dodge only receives one opinion about where they should put their engineering resources, talents and focus, so it will be a single-minded effort from our partner. It means we don't have to try and sell them on our opinion compared to someone else's.
We also get benefits of more testing time. At each of the Goodyear tire tests, each manufacturer is represented. This will allow us to participate more often, which is, of course, a boost in this era of limited testing. Those Goodyear tests are the only time a team can test at a NASCAR-sanctioned track.
The biggest downside that I see is that we lose our benchmark. When you're successful, you're the envy of everyone because no one else has what you have. But when you're not, it's more difficult to determine the reasons why because your competitors are running different equipment. Having a Kasey Kahne as a benchmark was always useful, because you have to be best in class before you can be the best overall.
Coming tomorrow: Tim's thoughts on Penske's IndyCar Series program.