Team Penske in command of the Chase after 2 races
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — As Brad Keselowski flaunted his fast car by leading session after session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Joey Logano took a good-natured swipe at his teammate by asking him via Twitter to slow down.
The first message apparently fell on deaf ears, so Logano tried again the next day, tweeting to Keselowski: “You must have not heard me yesterday. Please?”
Logano ultimately didn’t need an assist from Keselowski on Sunday. He led the final 30 laps to grab a pivotal victory, and the win pushed Logano into the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, where he and Keselowski are the only two drivers guaranteed of advancing.
Team Penske is hot — the hottest organization in NASCAR with four wins in the last five races — and Logano and Keselowski are ruthless right now about results. They aren’t content simply securing spots in the second round of the Chase. They want to win everything in sight and not let anyone else in the game.
“Knowing that we’re in the next round is nice,” said Logano after his victory, “but we want to go out there and win. Our goal is to win the championship. Just because we’re in the next (round) doesn’t mean we’re going to take a week off next week.”
This 16-driver Chase under a new elimination format was supposed to pit Penske against mighty Hendrick Motorsports, but it’s been all Penske through the first two races. Kevin Harvick has held his own, but his Stewart-Haas Racing entry has yet to stack up to the two Penske cars when a win is on the line.
And the four-car Hendrick effort? Well, Kasey Kahne could be eliminated Sunday at Dover, six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson has been mediocre at best, and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. aren’t yet on the same level as the two Penske teams.
Granted, the 10-race Chase has ebbs and flows — Matt Kenseth won the first two races last year but still lost the championship to Johnson. But what the first two races this year has shown is that Penske is playing for keeps.
Keselowski pushed hard for the organization to sign Logano, whom he believed would be a great complement to an organization on an upswing. Logano was signed during Keselowski’s 2012 championship run — the first Cup title for Roger Penske in 40 years of NASCAR participation — and indeed strengthened the two-car team.
Although Keselowski failed to make the Chase last year and was ineligible to defend his title, Logano earned his first career berth as both cars were competitive for the first time in many, many years. Being shut out of the Chase made Keselowski more determined, and he’s pushed and pushed behind the scenes for Penske to take an aggressive approach and rise to the level of Rick Hendrick’s industry standard team.
So all season long has been a competition between the two organizations, with Harvick trying desperately to crash the party. Logano at Bristol picked up his third win of the year — at the time it tied him with Keselowski, Gordon, Earnhardt and Johnson for most in the series, and then Keselowski surged to his fourth victory two weeks later.
Keselowski’s win at Richmond was good for the top seed in the Chase, and he made it two-straight with a victory in the Chase opener at Chicagoland to give him five on the year. Logano answered with Sunday’s win at New Hampshire, and both drivers have made it clear they won’t coast into each round. If they could somehow win all 10 Chase races, they’d have no pity for the other teams.
“I’d like to say the 35-inch, 35-ounce bat, they’re swinging it hard,” Walt Czarnecki, vice chairman at Penske, said Sunday. “Someone asked me a minute ago, ‘This must make you feel pretty good, both cars are advancing to the next round?’ I said ‘Let me tell you something about this group — we’re worried about Dover right now.’
“That’s our intent, one race at a time, and that’s how we’ll proceed.”
It’s already been a successful year for the Penske organization, which celebrated its first IndyCar championship since 2006 last month when Will Power claimed his first career title. Now Penske is in command of the Chase, and also leading the owner standings in the Nationwide Series.
Keselowski feels the attention the team is receiving now didn’t come until the seventh or eighth race of his title run two years ago. He’s used to attention and doesn’t mind it, but cautions the Penske organization against believing the hype.
“It’s different because it’s so early, and I know that we have so much further to go and so much more work to do,” Keselowski said. “In that sense, it’s a compliment. But it’s kind of scary because you don’t want to get overinflated as a team and think you’ve done what you needed to do when there’s so much work left to be done.”