It is always a relief to get the first win of the season in the books. Kurt Busch's win in Atlanta was really cool for all of the obvious reasons, but I was really happy for his crew chief, Steve Addington, because I know what it meant to him personally. He is a really good leader and his approach benefits our entire organization. In fact, with less than 100 laps to go, I thought we were headed for one of our best overall results in the Cup Series, as we had all three guys running in the top five at one point. Unfortunately, Sam Hornish's engine suffered a valve spring failure and Carl Edwards decided to take his frustrations out on Brad Keselowski with only a few laps to go.
The No. 2 car has run up front everywhere and if it weren't for Kurt getting collected at Daytona and Las Vegas, he would be right up there with Harvick. Kurt has already done what we haven't done in over two years – get him a pole, which meant it was his first pole since switching to the CoT car, and he was able to do it in his hometown of Las Vegas. What I've seen so far with he and Steve is two experienced guys putting their heads together to get results and their mutual respect should continue to pay dividends throughout the season. As long as we can keep executing, Kurt should be in the hunt for his second Cup Series championship.
As for Sam, there have been signs that things are coming together as well. Sam's always been a guy that puts more pressure on himself than anyone else could – it's just in his DNA – so continuing to qualify and run up front will only boost his confidence. We just haven't been able to turn those good runs into results. At Daytona, he had a chance to finish in the top-three in the Duel, but we had an engine problem which relegated him to the back of the field for the race and that's why he got caught up with Brad when Brad's tire went down. What I really liked about Sam's run at Fontana is that we didn't have a great day, but we were still able to get a top-20 finish. If that's a bad day, then we're in good shape. In the past, we have had too many races where those problems result in 35th place or worse. I really felt bad for him in Atlanta when the engine started to misfire as it looked like he was headed for a top-five with a chance to challenge for the win and we let him down. As Sam said to me afterwards, if we continue to run like that, he will win some races this year.
The same can be said for Brad as his great run in Atlanta was overshadowed by the fact that Carl decided to turn him on the front straight while running over 190mph; thankfully, no one was hurt. In fact, Brad went testing on Monday and Tuesday after Atlanta. There are a lot of guys that would've canceled the test after a ride like that, but Brad is a fighter and, although I doubt he'd be the kind of guy to pose for magazine covers with his shirt off, he is in really good shape. A lot of people forget that Brad is basically a rookie in the Cup Series. He understands that more than most and realizes that at the start of the year, he's just going to have to take what the race gives him, and learn. Everyone knows that he's not going to give much on the track, but he realizes that he needs to be around at the end of the race to maximize his experience so we can continue getting stronger throughout the season.
I've been asked many times what I think about NASCAR's decision to simply put Carl Edwards on probation after intentionally wrecking Brad. My view is, NASCAR isn't going to give us back the points we lost, they aren't going to repair our racecar, they can't replace the sense of accomplishment that our team members lost that day, so it really doesn't matter to me what they decide to do to Carl as long as it is in the best interest of the sport. NASCAR declared earlier this year that they think that letting the drivers sort it out on the track is the best way, so I guess the fans and the sponsors will decide if they are right.
I've also been asked whether Brad's approach is productive for the team and what he is like on the radio during the race. I can't say I've even heard him upset on the radio. He's very matter-of-fact, has a good sense of humor and he's a good motivator. He is always very positive toward the crew and he takes a lot of pride in knowing that he has a chance to do what he has always dreamed of doing for a living. Of course, he's also very forthright and he will call a spade a spade even if it means admitting mistakes: you don't see that with a lot of guys. Brad will be the first to raise his hand and say, “my bad.”
Atlanta won't be the last time Brad and Carl go at it as they are also top contenders for the Nationwide Series title. Going into Bristol, they are first and second in the championship. We have really started off strong in NNS and with Justin fourth in points, we feel like we have two guys who have a shot at winning every week. We have been running up front everywhere and Atlanta was the first time that Brad has won the pole at a 1.5-mile track. Knowing how young our Nationwide Series program is, this bodes well for our potential this season. I thought Justin had the strongest car in Las Vegas and just wasn't able to get on the right sequence with tires and pit stops. He has moved his game up a notch this year, I think as a result of the combination of a year's experience and a strong teammate. I'm confident that they will continue to feed off each other and I think that relationship will just keep getting better and the experience that Chad Walter and Paul Wolfe bring as crew chiefs has taken our team and our equipment to another level in 2010.
Following our first year of fielding a full season entry in the Nationwide Series, we have had time to reflect on what we need to do better. And in combination with expanding to a multi-car team, there's a lot of work to do to in order to raise our game from competing for the Rookie of the Year title, to expecting to be poised for a championship. Mike Nelson, our V.P. of Operations, has done a great job of working with our crew chiefs to define where we need to improve and he seems to have put the right people in the right places. Last year, a race win would have been a bonus for a rookie on a rookie team. This season, that won't be enough for us, our drivers, or our sponsors. Partnering with Discount Tire and Ruby Tuesday has been a home run. Like Verizon, they are the leaders in their respective categories and we plan to ensure that we reward them for believing in our organization.
Our development driver, Parker Kligerman, has had a tough time. The rain in Daytona meant he wasn't able to qualify as Team 42 wasn't in the top 30 in 2009 points and he had a bad draw, which meant they had to pack up. Following Fontana, he told me he probably learned more during that race than he ever expected. You could see him take that knowledge and put it to good use in Las Vegas and, until he encountered a transmission problem, he looked as if he was ready for a top-10 run. Unfortunately, no one else got to see that, but he's someone everyone needs to keep an eye on because he's got the right mindset to be successful.
Onto our IZOD IndyCar Series team, and in case you missed it, we announced at the recent Barber Motorsports Par open test that we will no longer be sponsored by Philip Morris. This truly marks the end to an unbelievable era. We have carried those familiar red and white colors for the last 20 years and they have been at the forefront of Indy car racing since 1986 when they came on the scene as a sponsor for Emerson Fittipaldi when he drove for Patrick Racing. It will be sad to see those classic colors missing from the Indy car field when they drop the green flag in Brazil. I'm sure I will miss Helio go by a few times while I'm trying to adjust to looking for the new colors. Given the political climate that has surrounded tobacco advertising over the past 10 years, I'm surprised we were able to remain partners as long as we did. We are nothing but appreciative for everything we were able to accomplish together and personally I feel very privileged to have been part of an era that we may never see again in motorsports. That said, we have always looked at change as opportunity, so we have already started working toward the future.
I was surprised when someone sent me a few blogs that were kicking around on the internet speculating on Roger getting out of IndyCar racing. Those who write this stuff must not know him very well. Sure, we may need to tighten our belts in some areas, but this is his golf game, his passion and I wouldn't bet against him. We are committed to running three cars this season and I'm confident that we will be a multi-car team in the foreseeable future. Is that two, three or four cars? Who knows, but Team Penske isn't going anywhere.
I hope we debut our new livery as well in Brazil as we did at the open test at Barber Motorsports Park. Will Power (it's hard to say his first name without saying his last) set the pace by about two tenths of a second and Helio and Ryan ended up second and third over the two days. The very cold temperatures (a high of 46 degrees) provided more downforce than we're expecting during the race weekend but that was balanced by the fact that tire temperatures weren't optimum, so it was hard to get the most out of a set of new tires. I'd say the times will be quicker in qualifying when we return in April.
Naturally, we're not using the Barber test as an indication for what will happen at Sao Paulo in the first race. Street tracks are always so different when compared to natural road courses, and new events multiply that challenge. Like every other team, we have a track map and some basic tire data, but it's difficult to guess what the grip levels will be on a street course as the aggregate changes. When you combine this with the fact that it rains quite a bit there this time of year, it will be exciting. I think the biggest challenge is that we have to practice and qualify in one day so we don't have a night to review the data and make the necessary adjustments like we typically would at a new circuit. We simply have to be prepared for the unexpected. It should be fun.
Thanks for reading.