Penske teams making significant gains
Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Charlotte, NC (Sports Network) -
Look out Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and Jack Roush. Both of Roger Penske's teams are becoming legitimate contenders for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
Two poles and a race win within the past two weeks have Penske's teams moving in the right direction. Kurt Busch started on the pole and led a race-high 152 laps before teammate Brad Keselowski prevailed in a fuel battle during the final laps to win last Sunday's 400-miler at Kansas. Busch was forced to pit with nine laps remaining and wound up finishing ninth.
During the month of May, Keselowski finished third at Darlington and claimed the pole for the Memorial Day weekend race at Charlotte. His second-place run in the Sprint Showdown preliminary event allowed him to secure a starting position for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
"I think we've made a lot of progress the last several weeks," Penske said. "This is a real step-up for us. These are the tracks [Kansas and Charlotte] that were tough for us, the one-and-a-half miles. It looks like we have a handle on these now. We'll see what happens."
Currently sixth in points, Busch and his No.22 team have turned things around since the last weekend in April at Richmond. Busch had a tirade over his team radio there, complaining about the poor performance of his car.
It appears the team's internal problems have been resolved.
"I'm proud of the way that this team has run," Busch said at Kansas. "To have a car to lead laps [Sunday] and be very competitive, I was all smiles."
Keselowski has recently emerged as a Chase contender, despite his present 21st ranking in points.
"If we deserve to be in it, we'll get in it; If we don't, we won't," Keselowski said. "Right now, we're on a good path to deserve to be in it. That's really what matters the most to me."
"This is a real step-up for us. These are the tracks that were tough for us, the one-and-a-half miles. It looks like we have a handle on these now," Roger Penske said.
NASCAR revised its Chase format during the off-season, adding two "wild card" spots to the field. The top-10 drivers will qualify for the playoffs after the regular season concludes September 10 at Richmond. Positions 11 and 12, the wild cards, will go to those drivers who have the most wins, provided they are in the top-20 at the time.
With thirteen races down and thirteen to go in the regular season, Jeff Gordon is the only driver between 11th and 20th in points that has a victory. Gordon won in February at Phoenix.
After winning at Kansas, Keselowski is just seven points outside the top-20.
"I'm a big fan for the rule NASCAR implemented, putting winners in the last two spots," he said. "I think that serves the sport very well. Hopefully, we'll be able to capitalize on it, but there's no guarantee of that. I feel pretty confident that it's going to take two wins to guarantee your way into it."
Keselowski started his Sprint Cup career on a high note. In just his fifth start, he won at Talladega, doing so in a dramatic finish. While battling for the lead on the final lap, Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact, with Edwards sailing into the catch fence along the frontstretch.
Regardless of his 2010 Nationwide Series championship, Keselowski's first full season in Sprint Cup last year was less than stellar. He finished 24th in points, recording just two top-10 finishes.
That prompted Penske to make a crew chief change for Keselowski. Paul Wolfe took over the crew chief role for Keselowski in NASCAR's top series after guiding him to the Nationwide title last season.
Penske also moved Keselowski into the seat of the No.2 Dodge after Busch's shift to the No.22 car. Penske and Robby Gordon Motorsports are the only teams in Sprint Cup running Dodges this year.
Keselowski and Wolfe didn't exactly storm out of the gate at the start of the season, but they have made headway.
"It was kind of embarrassing of how we ran at California and Vegas earlier in the year," Wolfe said. "So to see the progress that we've made and put ourselves in position to win these races now just says a lot about all the hard work and everything that's going on at Penske Racing."
Penske was well represented in the 2005 Chase, with drivers Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace in the field.
Can Penske do it again in this year's Chase?
It looks promising so far.