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Brad Keselowski in on the 600 pole, but what's really going on at Roger Penske's?

  Roger Penske (R) with Brad Keselowski, his newest NASCAR driver (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Where's the Captain?
   May used to be Roger Penske's time to shine.
   And, yes, he may be having fun up at Indianapolis, where he's centerstage and looking for Helio Castroneves to win number four, but the last few months Penske hasn't been very high profile in the NASCAR garage…while Kurt Busch's team struggles and Busch fumes.

   Maybe in the coming weeks Penske will show up to discuss the state of his NASCAR operation, winless in nearly a year now.
   At least Brad Keselowski is stepping to the fore for the Dodge team, in what is looking increasingly like a Jack Roush Ford season.
   Keselowski was something of a surprise in winning the pole for Sunday's Coke 600. Penske's Dodge engines are somewhat suspect this season, figured to be running last among the four manufacturers in horsepower, and sporting one of the oldest engine designs. But Dodge corporate engineers have been low profile on all of this.
    Busch wry says at times "It's tough to know whether you're chasing your own tail or you're the lead dog." 
   Well, Busch is no longer the lead dog, that seems clear.
   But no one seems willing, or able, to try to pinpoint the issues.
   Busch says "with the challenges we've had lately, this is as good a place as any to try our hand at a different setup to try and see what we can find for speed."

    Busch has frequently pointed to the Texas 500 as where he really saw the light, that something needed to be changed or fixed. He watched the Roush drivers at Texas, "and you could just see the new level of competition they have under the hood. David Ragan is on the pole by two-and-a-half tenths.  That just doesn't happen every day. 
    "They've got their program together."
    That's why the heavy betting here is on a Roush Ford to win the 600. Probably Carl Edwards, but maybe even raw rookie Ricky Stenhouse. Heck, remember what unknown Trevor Bayne with Roush engineering and Doug Yates engines at Daytona with the Woods…..
   Speeds on the tour seem to be increasing, and now even some NASCAR officials are starting to talk about that. With engines pumping out 900 horsepower, some in the garage have been saying too much is too much, that racing would be better all the way around with less horsepower. Some are suggesting a cutback to 600 horsepower, which, remember, was the benchmark in this series for years.
   Now, how to cut horsepower? With NASCAR-mandated rear end gearing, RPM can be limited. Maybe smaller cubic inch engines?

   This 600 comes at what could be a critical point in the season for this sport, after the All-Star flop, where excitement and thrills were sorely lacking.
   After this race, the stock car tour heads cross-country for the summer, to Kansas, Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire in successive weeks.
   And Fox TV is winding down its coverage, with Turner picking up the tour at Pocono.
   And the 600 itself, as NASCAR's longest race, can easily become a boring strategy event, though Keselowski points out "The last 100 miles gets real racy."
   But will Keselowski and Busch be racy enough down the stretch.
   Busch frets "We have a good car in practice sometimes, and then we get into the race and we get tight, and drop off more than the other cars. 
    "We might qualify well and then continually lose our track position as the race progresses.  
    "I'm feeling it's chassis-related.  There's some technology we might be a bit behind on, or reluctant to put in the car. 
    "We can earn a chase birth by just getting a win; there's no sense of urgency.  It's just time to make some changes and make it happen.
    "May last year, we were top-five, and top-five in points. 
     "We came off a dominating month of May, and we seemed to drop off when we went to Chicago in July.  It was a (new) car that we couldn't figure out.
    "Chassis changes came towards the chase (in September), and that's when we really never found the speed. 
     "We had a very successful Daytona Speedweeks (this February) – a top-five in the Daytona 500.  But we all know that a restrictor-plate car is a lot different than a 1-1/2-mile car.  We hit it right for a superspeedway car. Now we're back to the 1-1/2-miles, and we've struggled.
   "Roger and I agree that as long as you put yourself in position to do well, no matter what the outcome is,  those are good days.
    "But when you're running 15th, just clawing to hang onto the lead lap, those aren't days we need. We need to be up there leading laps."
    It was Busch's radio blowup at Richmond that caught everyone's ears.
    He now concedes that wasn't quite the way to make his point: "It's a matter of trying to be the most professional you can be about it.  
    "Not every situation is good; and you're being graded on how you persevere through the troubling times. 
     "I always laugh, listening to you guys (the media) contradict yourselves -- you say you want us to be more colorful, but all you want to do to a driver is just thrash them when they show personality."
   So Busch says don't expect any fireworks on his channel. "From now on, there's not going to be anything on it except solid team communication…because that's all there needs to be."

   And what to make of Brad Keselowski? Remember, he's in only his second full season on the Sprint Cup tour, but he has been high-profile this spring, and that was a bold pass last Saturday night, though he couldn't keep momentum going in the All-Star itself.
    Keselowski himself is trying to create believers. He burst onto the scene with that Talladega win, then last season he started strong in his rookie season only to get caught up in a series of controversial run-ins with Edwards that seemed to take some steam out of his sails.
  But this sprint Keselowski seems perky again, more with it, and ready to make some of those dicey moves.
  "Every week we just keep picking away a little here, a little bit there, and we're starting to get more people to believe in us," Keselowski says.
   One plus for Keselowski may be Paul Wolfe, his crew chief, new to the Cup tour in that position.
   "He lives off of Perth Road, so maybe he found some secrets there," Keselowski said impishly, referring to the stretch of highway where Kyle Busch got busted for 128 the other day.  "There is a lot of speed on that road, I hear."
   Is there a Busch-versus-Keselowski thing going on here? Busch figures to be the team's lead dog. Keselowski though says "from Race Five on we've actually out-performed, but haven't out-finished.
    "We're getting to where we have performance, but not execution.  The next step for us is to execute."

   The departure of Tom German has made a difference. "He was the head of engineering…There were people that had good things to say about him and people that had bad things to say about him," Keselowski says. "Either way, the change has opened doors that would have never opened before.
    "The jury is still out whether that's good or bad.
    "I spent all last year being quiet and not saying 'Hey, this car is really, really bad' to the media….but they were really, really bad. 
    "But Kurt was running well, and I didn't have a leg to stand on with that. 
     "This year obviously my cars have gotten better.  Kurt has had his struggles; I've had my struggles too. 
    "I got in the car the other week and run like crap:  Richmond was a terrible weekend for us, and you get out of the car and say 'What am I doing? We're terrible.'
    "Running 40th in Cup, I'd rather work at McDonald's.  I can’t stand it.
     "But it's somewhat refreshing to have someone that can speak up, have a voice, have the credibility of being a past champion and past winner, and those around him perhaps listen more intently."

   While Charlotte Motor Speedway is so temperature sensitive, especially to the sun down in the third and fourth turns, it tends to get really grippy at night, and that's when horsepower could be key, as Carl Edwards showed late Saturday night.
   Perhaps one problem at Penske's is that, while he is running his two-car operation as, well, a two-car operation, rivals have expanded their technological base by adding 'satellite' teams. Rick Hendrick has at least six Cup teams that his men can analyze; Roush has even more. And Richard Childress too has expanded his engineering operations, teaming with Chip Ganassi's guys and the Regan Smith bunch.
   Ironically some of Roush's new-found edge in this sport may stem from Dodge engineering used the Richard Petty operation, now merged with Roush.

    Busch's last tour win was right here one year ago. Keselowski's only tour win was in the spring of 2009 at Talladega.
   Busch opened strong at Daytona, but after Bristol things began to go sour. And after Busch's public blowup at Richmond earlier this month, there was a shakeup at Penske's shop, and a key engineer left. Just how long it might take for things to really change isn't clear. Typically in this sport, when you get behind – check the Jack Roush camp for more details – it takes months and months to turn things back around.
   Consider this as the mark: this weekend Busch, the 2004 series champ, is hanging in ninth in the points, rather impressive since he hasn't finished inside the top-10 since March.
  What a difference a year makes? Last May Busch led 252 of the 400 laps. And Busch was a no-show in the All-Star, a distant 13th.
  Crew chief Steve Addington say "We know we have to show more strength than we did last weekend."

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