Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

The Captain finally sees the fruit of his teams' labors...in victory lane at Kansas

 A burnout for The Captain, Roger Penske. Brad Keselowski celebrating (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   Roger Penske, 'The Captain,' long-time NASCAR team owner, and Indianapolis superstar, has watched his two Sprint Cup teams struggle through the spring, and he's had to listen to Kurt Busch's angry ranting about engineering problems and other issues.
   So Sunday here was an amazing turnaround.

   Busch dominated the three-hour race, with blazing speed on a day when most drivers battled ill-handling cars. And when the 400-miler developed into a gas mileage end game, teammate Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe had it all sized up just perfectly.
   Much to the chagrin of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who were both stunned that Keselowski had enough fuel to make it the distance on one less fuel stop.
   Busch's rant at Richmond last month resulted in a major shakeup at Penske's, though all the details haven't been laid on the table yet.
   And Penske himself hasn't been seen at a NASCAR race in some time.
   But The Captain must be psychic – he was here Sunday at Kansas Speedway, to watch his two teams play things out just fine, and then to be able to elaborate on how the season has been going.


Brad Keselowski at the finish line, and he didn't have to look back (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "I think we've made a lot of progress the last several weeks," Penske says. "People haven't really noticed it, but we caught a bad break when Brian Vickers stalled at Charlotte (on the final restart with two to go in last weekend's 600). Brad ran well there, and Kurt has run well.  
    "But this is a real step-up for us. These are the tracks that were tough for us, the 1-1/2-miles. 
    "It looks like we have a handle on these now.
    "The engines: we've had good power, but we need more.  And we need better handling. 
    "We've added more engineering capability this year; we're starting to see it now that we didn't have last year.
     "These guys are testing every single week….That's one of the things I am always concerned about with NASCAR -- that we can't test at the tracks we race on. So we spend all this money to go to other tracks….
    "And you've got to use (computer) simulation, but that doesn't really give you all the factors you have on a day where the temperature's going up."

    Keselowski, who spent much of his 2010 rookie season trying to escape those controversial run-ins with Carl Edwards, has been on a different tack this spring. While 2010 developed into a tough deal for him, Keselowski has opened 2011 with a big smile and a lot more optimism.
    He was on the pole at Charlotte, and now winning here – which puts him in next spring's Sprint Cup All-Star race – has him and Penske looking ahead hopefully to make this fall's championship playoffs.
   "We had a car I thought was capable of winning," Keselowski said. "I had a car last week that sat on the pole, and had a shot at it, just caught the wrong line on the restart. 
    "The same thing at Dover and Darlington -- we could just never catch that good break.
    "But you can only put yourself in that position so many times before you’re going to catch the right break.
    "We were a top-10 car -- maybe the bottom half of the top-10, but a top-10 car.  You look at our runs this year and we've been top-five, top-10 at a lot of races this year, just caught bad breaks."

    This 'good break' was in part created by crew chief Paul Wolfe, who earned his first Cup tour win. "Paul has brought a commitment probably we've never had in detail," Penske said. "And he just won't let up. He got a payoff today for doing that."
   "Around lap 210 (of the 267) we knew we could make it from there," Wolfe said. "As guys started pitting, I looked at our lap times, and it seemed we started picking up a bunch of speed, I don't know if we got some clean air or what.
    "But it was almost a no brainer for me (to gamble on not stopping), because we were only losing three to four tenths (a second a lap) to the guys on new tires; normally when guys start short-pitting, you're losing over a second a lap, and you just lose so much track position."
   Indeed, during those Monday morning debriefings back in Charlotte some team owners ought to be closely questioning why so many stopped so early for gas and tires, when on fresh tires didn't really make much of a difference.
    Keselowski not only was just about holding his own in speed, he had many of those who had pitted a lap down.
   "I've been in Cup for 2-1/2 years, and I'm almost to seven crew chiefs," Keselowski said. "A lot of people. We're finally hitting on a good combination here with Paul; we're on the same wavelength."



Kurt Busch (outside) at the front for the start of the Kansas 400, and he stayed right there most of the day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Busch himself was magnanimous in defeat. He not only had to make that extra pit stop late that Keselowski didn't have to make, Busch's car had trouble with fuel pickup right after that, and he wound up a disappointed ninth.
   "I'm proud of the way that this team has run," Busch said, clearly having changed his attitude about things over the past few weeks since Richmond.
   "To have a car to lead laps and be very competitive, I was all smiles.  
    "There was always something in the back of my mind that we weren't going to win (given his teams problems)….but I'm glad Brad Keselowski got this win.
    "It's just one of those days where you're on the right side, or sometimes you're not. I'm not discouraged at all."

    Younger brother Kyle Busch was, surprisingly, off the pace, though he certainly wasn't alone. After an early morning meeting with NASCAR officials over that run-in Saturday with rival team owner Richard Childress, Busch started the race strong but then faded, finishing 12th.
    "We were chasing the balance," Kyle Busch said. "We really couldn't quite run with the leaders.
    "There were a few times we were decent. But we would get close to somebody and try to pass, and then the car would react like we burned the tires off it. They just got too hot, and we started falling back from people."

   Once again Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly stole the race. Down the stretch he – and perhaps many in the crowd announced at 80,000 – figured he was battling Denny Hamlin for the win, after the two of them had played gas mileage strategy clearly better than most of their rivals. All of their rivals, in fact, except Keselowski….
   But at the end Earnhardt had to settle for second, and Hamlin third.
   "We had a fast car…just started way back there in the back, man," Earnhardt said. "We ain't qualified no better than 22nd besides Daytona and Talladega. We need to fix that somehow.
    "We shouldn't have run second again. We've got to fix some things. We've got fast cars, so we can be fast."
    At least Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte got in position to win. That's better than most here could say.
   This was the first late spring Cup race at this track, and most teams seemed lost the whole weekend.
   In fact Sunday was filled with surprises.
    Tony Stewart, for example. Just Friday he'd complained that Ford teams had such a huge edge in engine horsepower that he felt like he was "bringing a knife to a gunfight."
    But the second half of the afternoon Stewart was in the thick of it. Maybe that's because this track was hot and greasy, and the weather was the hottest of the season, and Stewart thrives in those conditions.
   However Stewart, like Busch and others, had trouble with the new refueling cans, which have bedeviled teams this season. The new 'closed system' gas cans are being used because the tour has switched to a 15 percent ethanol blend, and ethanol tends to absorb water vapor, creating engine problems.
   "We didn't get all the fuel in it to make it to the end," Stewart said.  "We had a problem getting the fuel in, and we didn't get it full at that second to last stop. So we had to pit there with about 10 to go.
    "Not getting all the fuel in the car changed our strategy."
   Another fuel mileage race? Charlotte's 600 was one. Saturday's Chicago Nationwide race was another. Now this.
   "Is this the first time it's happened? Nah, and it won't be the last time either," Stewart said. "That's just part of it.
    "It's not a problem; it's part of racing.
    "Crew chiefs are pretty smart, and they know how to play the odds; they know what their scenario is, what their situation is.
    "And you lose a heck of a lot more of them than you win that way.
    "But it's nice to steal one once in a while. You'll take them any way you can get them."


 Pop a top. Brad Keselowki in victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com