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.