It may be the offseason but if you have followed even a little bit of what we have been up to at Penske Racing, you already know that we have been busier than ever trying to get everything in order for 2011. We begin every season with the expectation of having a shot at winning championships in each of the series where we compete and there's always a lot that needs to be done to ensure that we are as prepared as we can be.
In fact, work on next year's NASCAR Cup program had already begun several races before the end of the season.Going into the Chase, we certainly felt like we had a chance to make it happen, but once the Charlotte race passed, we realized that our hopes for the title had passed as well. At that point, we started going through some different approaches with chassis, cars and setups, trying to establish some baselines and data for next year. I think we found some things that didn't work and a few of the directions showed some progress. I certainly feel Brad Keselowski ended his Cup season better than where he'd been in the first half of the year, so we appear to have made some gains there. However, we're very honest with ourselves and know that we're not where we want to be as we must be able to run up front with all of our cars, not just Kurt Busch's car.
Our expectations for 2011 are for Kurt to continue to compete for the championship and for Brad to make a big step forward and position the No. 2 car in a way that competes for a spot in the Chase – and I think that's very feasible. To have two cars in the Chase would be huge for our organization as we need to our teams to feed off of each other every weekend. To achieve that, we need to be prepared and prioritize as the off-season is so short in the Cup series.
Preparation can be defined in so many ways as there are so many facets of what it takes to be successful in our sport. Obviously, the funding needs to be in place and the car and engine builds must all be in sync with the schedule, but the people are where we spend the most of our time when we talk about preparation. Over the past few months we have had to make some very difficult decisions within our staffing. It had become increasingly obvious that we had to begin planning as if we were going to run two Cup cars and one Nationwide car in 2011 as we haven't been able to put together the resources to continue as we have – with three Cup teams and two Nationwide teams. Downsizing is never easy as it affects so many people in so many ways. The reality is every team goes through it over time and I confident all of the teams have been faced with these difficult decisions over the past 24 months due to the simple fact that there are fewer marketing dollars available in the current state of the economy.
I was taught early in life that, although you may not welcome the change, you should utilize it as an opportunity that may not have existed otherwise. In recent weeks, we have done exactly that. We have sharpened our focus and we have added more depth within our two Cup teams than we had when we had three. We have established Travis Geisler as our Competition Director and we have added more depth to our race engineering staff as we have kept all of our race engineers on board in various capacities. We also decided that Paul Wolfe deserved a chance at the Cup level with Brad after the job he did with our Nationwide program this year.
Brad really established himself this year and he put himself on the map for the right reasons. From the moment he took the NASCAR Nationwide Series lead, he never gave it back – he only continued to build on it. Every race, he seemed to get stronger and stronger, and more confident about what he was doing. When he knew he was racing for a championship, he knew he had to race smart but I think the overwhelming fact is that the No. 22 car finished every lap of the season except for one. We finished on the lead lap of every race except one, where we got wrecked. That speaks volumes for Brad's maturity, as does the fact that he extended his record for races without a DNF to beyond 100 and he broke the record for top-five finishes in a season. Those kinds of stats tell a story about his consistency and his ability to get the job done. We are hoping that same chemistry can carry forward to his Cup program as he steps into the storied Blue Deuce.
The IZOD IndyCar Series has had one of its most exciting winters in some time. When you combine IZOD's commitment, Randy Bernard's presence and the fact that we now have engine competition returning to the series in 2012, I have to say that things are looking very positive. I'm a bit surprised that we have been able to go from thinking we were going to continue with a sole supplier in 2012, to now having not only Honda, but Chevy and Lotus as well. Obviously, with Roger (Penske's) strong presence in Detroit we were really excited to be able to help bring Chevrolet back to IndyCar racing as they have a great history there. On a team level, we were also able to announce new associations with IZOD, Meijer, AAA and Shell/Pennzoil all within a matter of days, which was a huge shot in the arm as this gave us the confidence to commit to running three cars again in 2011 with our existing drivers.
While I think everyone at Team Penske should be proud of what's been achieved in the spec car era, what's good for the series is even better for us as the Penske legacy should prosper as the series grows and gets back to a position of prominence – having more competition, more manufacturers and more sponsors. Winning races and championships in a series that isn't healthy isn't nearly as rewarding as having success – even if it's less than what we have been able to achieve recently – in a series that's on the rise. We'd trade that any day.
It's not yet clear what freedom the teams are going to have to develop anything. I get the indication that it's going to be more limited than it is now in terms of what the teams can do; it will be the manufacturers who obviously have more freedom, and whatever our input in as a team will benefit all those who are using the same make and model rather than just benefiting ourselves. That's an interesting and different position for us, but it brings a different challenge and it's something that is certainly going to be intriguing for the fans. We would like to think that we would be working with Chevrolet on their aero kit, but until the aero kit rules are solidified, it's difficult for us to confirm that. However, our expectation is that we would have input, though it is difficult to know the extent of this until we understand the testing policies.
A driver's technical feedback always needs to be one of the major contributing factors for all of the development facets, but the fact that we are able to collect on track data – and it doesn't sound like the data resource that we have is going to change – I think there will continue to be a good balance in the IndyCar Series between the feedback that the driver gives you and the information that we are able to analyze using the onboard sensors.
That said, when manufacturers are involved in any competitive series, the demands for the driver certainly goes up – and that even extends to off-track issues. The drivers not only have to represent their teams and sponsors, they also have to establish a good rapport with their engine manufacturer and the manufacturer needs to be sure they have the right representation on and off the track. For instance, Honda is currently able to utilize any of their 24+ drivers as their spokesperson. When that's cut by 66 percent, it becomes a lot more important that you have the right ones.
It's been somewhat overlooked, but the excitement of the 2012 IndyCar formula has an interesting effect on the 2011 season. I think everyone's in a difficult position because sponsors are still difficult to obtain, so team owners will want to get through next season with minimal expenditure given that the cars are going to be obsolete come October. I'm envisioning an even tougher title fight because, year to year, the things that we can find to make our cars faster becomes fewer and fewer, so other teams will continue to catch up. In fact, I think the competition will be stronger than it's ever been so it will be a good season to watch even though it's the last year for these cars. You can be sure that some teams are going to take a few more chances.
It also sounds like there may be some rules changes in 2011 that may set the stage for some added excitement. For example, double-file restarts a la NASCAR, would add to the IndyCar series and there has also been a lot of discussion about changing the way in which race pits are assigned. In recent years, they were simply assigned in order of championship points which gave the points leader an added advantage every week when what we really need is a way of mixing things up to keep things interesting when the cars, engines and tires are so reliable. We would support some type of performance criteria beyond points, or even a blind draw before the event. Whatever the method, I really enjoy the way we are able to select a pit at Indy rather than being assigned one as it adds another element of strategy to the game. We saw how this process plays out when Denny Hamlin's team picked in front of Jimmie Johnson's this year in the Chase and vice versa.
Whatever the situation, and whatever the series, rest assured that we are working hard to ensure that we will hit the ground running in 2011.
Happy Holidays and thanks for reading this year.