By now you'll have heard about today's big news at Penske Racing, so I'll talk about that next time. As far as our racing in 2010 is concerned, there's already a lot of positive aspects to talk about.
Justin Allgaier's Nationwide win in Bristol gave Penske Racing wins in all three of the series – NASCAR Nationwide and Cup, IZOD IndyCar – where we compete this year. It is a big deal to get victories under our belt early in the season because it legitimizes our approach to 2010 and, as long as we don't get complacent, it puts us in a strong position for all three championships. Brad Keselowski's Nationwide Series points lead after Phoenix was the first time a Penske entry had led the Nationwide championship and, after winning two of the first four IZOD IndyCar Series races, Will Power is firmly on top of that championship. Kurt Busch also sits in a strong position to challenge for the Chase. This is a great feeling…but there is still a lot of racing to go!
It's our job to put ourselves in the position to win races, and it's been a long time since I've shown up at a track thinking, “We don't have a chance to win today.” We arrive with the thought, “We can win if we execute,” but still the circumstances have to go our way. Look at the first IndyCar race of 2010 and all of the things that occurred in Sao Paulo. We took advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself, but we certainly didn't have dominant cars that day. We put ourselves in the right place toward the end, and Will was able to overtake Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps. St. Petersburg, by contrast, was a more predictable race where Will won with the fastest car. And then Barber Motorsports Park was different again – if there had been another caution period, Marco Andretti may have been able to do the race in two stops and I'm not sure Helio [Castroneves] could have passed him. So circumstances have played their part in two of our first three IndyCar wins, but we've been able to execute by putting ourselves in the right position to win.
The Barber race was an interesting challenge. Although we had two cars in the first two rows, we didn't start the race intending to split our strategies. Obviously, as the guy who calls the shots for Helio, when the first caution came, I had to think about where our competitors were relative to us and how many of them I thought were going to stay out on track. But the decision for Helio to stay out when Will ducked into the pits was really a result of what had happened in St. Petersburg the race before.
Helio did a three-stop race in St. Pete, but it was Will's two-stop strategy that won the race. In the first stint at St. Pete, Helio was trying to save fuel, as was Will, but Helio just wasn't making the necessary mileage. However, he had a fast car and it was a circuit where you could pass, so I made the decision to make it a three-stop race for us so he could be aggressive while others were saving fuel. What I didn't anticipate was the number of cars that would stay out. I figured we'd come out in about eighth place and pass our way up to fourth or so before the next stop, but I think we came out about 12th, which is when I knew we were going to need a lot of things to go our way, which they didn't.
With this in mind, I really wanted Helio to study Will's data prior to Barber because track position was going to be a premium due to the lack of passing zones. I give Helio a lot of credit as he approached it with an open mind and really worked on improving his technique. This enabled us to have the confidence to start the race with the mentality of, “If there's a caution near the start, as there usually is, then we can go with a two-stop race approach,” as we felt we only needed eight to 10 caution laps to make it to the end if we were making good mileage in the beginning.
When the first yellow flag came, it really wasn't until the pack came around the last turn when the pits opened that I decided to leave Helio out. Listening to other teams on the radio, they seemed really unsure of what to do as well, and in those situations it has a lot to do with how many drivers stay out – and you usually don't know the answer to that until it's too late!
However, my reasoning was this: Tony Kanaan had already stopped, so had the No. 4 and the No. 77 cars, so there were already three cars that had committed to a three-stop strategy and would be running ahead of us when we came out of the pits. We were running third behind Will and Mike Conway so if we all stop, that becomes sixth if they stop and we don't beat them out of the pits – on a track where it's hard to pass. So I decided we should stay out. It wasn't a decision to do the opposite of what Will was doing.
A question I often get asked is along the lines of, “At what point on a race weekend do you quit being team president and just start focusing on looking after Helio?” Well, my primary job is to ensure that the team is successful, and I need to do that in the fairest way possible, but once the green flag drops, my job is to do the best I can for the No. 3 car. In doing that, I'll never sacrifice a team result – and Roger Penske is the same way with the No. 6 car of Ryan Briscoe. We're competitive, and that's why we enjoy calling the races, but if one car has a strong chance of winning the race, we need to do all we can to grab that opportunity. We've got to be careful not to race ourselves too hard.
But we do not have team orders – except for “don't hit each other.” The drivers are allowed to go at it, and although this philosophy has worked against us a few times, we think it's best to be true to ourselves. Plus, we have mature drivers on our team. Ryan and Helio have each played supporting roles for each other. Helio was going for the championship in 2008 and Ryan could do no better than fifth in the championship. Then something similar but in reverse occurred in '09, but in both cases the guy behind was well aware that he'd benefit from the rewards of his teammate winning the title, so he cast himself in the support role.In addition to winning the opening two rounds of the season and three of the four pole positions, the No. 12 Verizon team has been a huge benefit to us. We took a hard look at our personnel over the winter and really focused on putting the right guys in the right spots rather than simply moving the Grand-Am team to the No. 12 Indy car. Our early season success is really a credit to everyone's efforts and it is really satisfying to see how quickly Dave Faustino, Will's engineer, has fit in at Penske. He has the right personality, demeanor and approach and he's become a key person in our organization in a very short period of time.
Credit should also go to Will Power for being on top of his game after his long rehabilitation. We joke that maybe all of those days and nights on his back gave him a mental edge over the others.
Whenever someone dominates the way that he has in the first four events, especially when you drive for Roger, there are some people who will look for reasons to discredit them. I think you could've given him anyone's suspension setup in St. Pete and the results would've been similar, as he is simply that good at that type of track.
As is often the case, people tend to try to point to some “unfair advantage” when it comes to our program. After the first few races, people were questioning our anti-roll bar setup even though it has been in existence, on our cars and many of our competitors', since road and street course racing was introduced to the IndyCar Series, and we certainly hadn't seen this type of success until Will showed up. So I guess you could say he is our “unfair advantage” at these tracks because he can only drive one car at a time.
On to the NASCAR Nationwide Series. It doesn't get much better than what we accomplished at Bristol, watching Brad and Justin dueling for the win in the closing stages. It's always difficult to watch your team's cars race each other that hard but they raced each other clean and I think the 1-2 finish showed how respectful they have become as teammates. Brad and Justin realize that to win the championship, they're going to have to work together and that they're a lot stronger together than they are apart. Last year, in different teams, they probably would've figured out a way to run into each other, but this time they gave each other just enough room and just enough respect.
To see Justin, from his humble beginnings, score his first Nationwide win and get that monkey off of his back was a really rewarding moment for all of us. There's no one more deserving than him. It was also fantastic to see Verizon get a chance to really activate their sponsorship. In 2009, we weren't able to get any of our No. 12 Verizon cars in Victory Lane, but Will and Justin's results in March meant we gave Verizon three wins in consecutive weekends! It's exciting for us to see how appreciative they are with the full-page ads in USA Today and another in Justin's home paper in Illinois. That's the kind of sponsorship and support our sport needs.
At Nashville, we looked like we had the car to beat but came up a bit short, and then came Phoenix and Texas. From a pure enthusiast's point of view, Phoenix was a great event to watch, but for us it seemed like a missed opportunity. Brad Keselowski's No. 22 Discount Tire car had battled Kyle Busch up front all night and when the last stop came around, we ended up too deep in our pit box because of the pit lane traffic and it put us in a difficult position to change the left-side tires without losing a lot of time. Recognizing this, (crew chief) Paul Wolfe made a good call in this situation to go with a two-tire change. Unfortunately, it meant that Brad was out there with just two fresh tires trying to hold off guys with four. It was exciting to watch and Brad drove the wheels off of it but came up just short in our attempt to win at the home track for Discount Tire, our partner. Although it was short lived after Texas, we did leave with the points lead and as Brad says, “that is something to be proud of.”
With regard to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, we are still pushing to improve the numbers on the board but things haven't gone our way too often. We have shown signs of improvement in many areas. Kurt is solid in the points and we are focused on getting Brad and Sam Hornish Jr. into the top 20 in points by the time we leave the Charlotte 600. Sam has really stepped up in qualifying as he was on the front row in Texas and third in Phoenix. Brad had a top-10 car in Phoenix but got caught up with Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. while trying to run three-wide off of Turn 2. Kurt was as strong as he's ever been in Martinsville and had a great opportunity to win there and ran a smart race in Texas to come home fourth.
So I think, from an overall standpoint, we're definitely much better than we were in 2009 – and we have run better than our point standings show, as Kurt has led more laps than anyone at this point. We just have to focus on getting good results each and every week. That much never changes in racing.
I'll get back to you next month as I'm sure we will have quite a few interesting topics to discuss. Thanks for reading.