Team Penske has turned its performance around 1.5-mile tracks around and it could be enough to get two of its cars into the championship race.
Joey Logano became the first driver to advance to next month’s title event at Phoenix Raceway by winning last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Could Ryan Blaney be next?
The 1.5-mile tracks have played a key role in the playoffs. Four of the 10 playoff races, including Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC), are on 1.5-mile tracks. Homestead marks the third race in the last five at 1.5-mile tracks.
Early in the season, it didn’t look like a 1.5-mile stretch of track in the playoffs was good for Team Penske. The organization finished no better than 11th in Las Vegas, Kansas and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in the first half of the year (Atlanta is not included as it reflected superspeedway racing after its changes ). Team Penske drivers led 2.3% of the 954 laps completed in those races.
But in all three playoff races at 1.5-mile tracks, Team Penske has one win and four top-10s. The organization has also led 14.7% of the 868 laps completed on these tracks.
“It’s kind of a boost,” Team Penske director of competition Travis Geisler told NBC Sports. “I thought we were pretty good at Kansas and we found some things. We were able to go to Homestead and work on it a little bit. We were able to go to Texas and probably be a little bit better than where we’ve been.”
The Kansas playoff race in September marked the first time a Team Penske car had a top-10 finish. Blaney was ninth there.
“It’s such small incremental changes,” Wolfe said of the improvement at the 1.5-mile tracks for Team Penske. “You can’t change anything wholesale. These are just minor tweaks. I think the engine shop did a great job. They’ve been working really hard to get us an advantage in that area.”
With limited practice time and parts from a single supplier, it can be a challenge for teams to overcome deficits on the field. Logano crew chief Paul Wolfe said a tire test at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway in June helped the team. Team Penske took what it learned from that test into the second half of the year and into an organizational test at Homestead-Miami Speedway last month.
“Having these opportunities, I’m grateful that I was able to take advantage of it, because it’s one thing to try, but you hope you can learn something as well.”
They have. Logano finished second in Texas before his win in Las Vegas. Blaney has won a stage in both races.
Wolfe also said Blaney was good on the Homestead test.
“There’s no reason he can’t go to Homestead with the speed he has and have a chance to win as well,” Wolfe said.
If Blaney wins this weekend, it will mark his first points win of the season (he won the All-Star Race at Texas in May). A Blaney victory would also mark the fifth straight year the championship race has had teammates in the event.
Last year’s title race was between two organizations. Both Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each had two cars in the event. Team Penske had their teammates last compete for the championship in the final race of 2020 with Logano and Brad Keselowski.
2. Keep an eye out for…
Denny Hamlin was the driver who stood out the most to Chase Briscoe at the Homestead test last month.
Hamlin was third on the speed chart on day one and fifth on day two.
“I felt Denny was the best car,” Briscoe said. “I felt like I was a 10th (of second) or two better than almost everybody else and then Denny was like two or three tenths better than us.
“It was pretty incredible. Short term. Long term. It didn’t matter. It was just lights out. They were the car to beat if we had to race that weekend.”
Hamlin has eight wins between Homestead and Martinsville, the last two races in the Round of 16. His win total at those two tracks is more than the remaining seven playoff drivers combined (five). Hamlin has three wins at Homestead, tied for most all-time with Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle. Hamlin has started first in each of the last five Homestead races.
3. In search of another manufacturer
A recent report by SportsBusiness Journal stated that Dodge’s talks about returning to NASCAR had stalled. This keeps the Cup Series to three manufacturers: Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.
Toyota was the last manufacturer to enter the sport, doing so in 2007. Dodge was still in the series then, giving the series four manufacturers. Dodge left NASCAR after winning the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski and Team Penske.
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, is surprised that there are only three manufacturers left in NASCAR’s premier series.
“Our perspective as an automaker is that we want to compete,” he said. “We race in showrooms and the more manufacturer commitment the better. That’s why we love sports car racing because there are nine manufacturers we race against in IMSA. We love that.
“So it’s terribly disappointing that we’re still only three manufacturers (in NASCAR). We’re in too delicate a position as a sport because we can’t afford to lose any of us. NASCAR can’t afford to lose any of us of us. But it’s business, you don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re in the middle of what appears to be a recession. Inflation is affecting each of us from a business perspective. You want to dig a little deeper in terms of manufacturers.”
So does NASCAR still work for Toyota?
“Absolutely it does,” Wilson said. “We still talk to the fans. We still have a tremendous climb. We’re not going anywhere. Our commitment and determination is as strong as ever. I’m not worried about Toyota, but I’d like to have another brand or two because the sport would be better for it.”
4. No duplication
There have been 10 different winners in the last 10 Cup races. The last time there were 11 different winners in a row in a season was 2012.
The winners of the last 10 races are:
Las Vegas – Joey Logano
Charlotte Roval – Christopher Bell
Talladega – Chase Elliott
Texas – Tyler Reddick
Bristol – Chris Buescher
Kansas – Bubba Wallace
Darlington – Erik Jones
Daytona – Austin Dillon
Watkins Glen —Kyle Larson
Richmond – Kevin Harvick
In addition, the last seven races have been won by seven different teams:
Las Vegas – Team Penske
Charlotte Roval – Joe Gibbs Racing
Talladega — Hendrick Motorsports
Texas – Richard Childress Racing
Bristol – RFK Racing
Kansas – 23XI Racing
Darlington — Petty GMS
5. A long time ago
This weekend’s Homestead race will come 602 days since the last race there on February 28, 2021. William Byron won that race, which was the third event last season.
There have been 66 races between this race and this weekend. There have been 24 different winners, including first Cup victories for Bubba Wallace, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Tyler Reddick.