Race Weekend Central

Penske’s 1st-Year Blues: History Giving NASCAR Veteran Horrors

DOVER, Del. – Sixteenth place is hardly a horrible day, especially given the context of this race at Dover International Speedway. It wasn’t 15 laps in before the event was red-flagged for a nasty 13-car wreck on the backstretch, one that all but blocked the racing surface to oncoming traffic, snarling champions to start-and-parkers.

But for all that early carnage, 16th was the best the No. 22 team could muster, the latest disappointment and mediocre result for a team that has dramatically underachieved three months into the 2012 season.

AJ Allmendinger’s dream ride has been anything but. That 16th-place finish was aided in a big way by attrition (contenders left and right were knocked out early; Tony Stewart was caught up in that early melee on lap 10, while Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton all suffered through mechanical failures).

Though the No. 22 team managed to stay on the lead lap the entire afternoon, that was all it had in it; around lap 100, Allmendinger told his team, “it’s the worst it’s been all weekend.” Lap 150, “where the hell is the speed? Every weekend is like this.”

Lap 300, “if we could ever find a happy medium, one time. It’s so freaking tight right now.” Lap 315, “I can’t drive like this for 400 laps.” Lap 365, “It’s just terrible to drive.” The griping got so repetitive that the team was refraining from response for large stretches of the race’s second half.

That’s not to say there were not problems, as the No. 22 car struggled to maintain any passes it managed to complete on Sunday afternoon (June 3). But between the solid work of the pit crew (which gained the No. 22 multiple spots on each of the final two stops down the stretch) and again, attrition-aided or not, salvaging a 16th-place result out of the weekend is not the end of the world.

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The grating attitude on the radio suggested otherwise. And given the circumstances surrounding this operation, that may well be far more cause for concern than an ill-handling concrete package ever could be.

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Allmendinger’s struggles are just the latest in what has become a trend for Penske Racing; new drivers do not get off to a fast start in this camp and haven’t since a young Ryan Newman stole the Rookie of the Year crown from Jimmie Johnson in 2002. When Kurt Busch took over the No. 2 from Rusty Wallace in 2006, he posted his worst results since his rookie campaign in Cup, seeing his total wins, top fives and top 10s all dip to levels he hadn’t seen in five years.

David Stremme’s 2009 campaign, taking over the No. 12 for Newman following his departure to Stewart-Haas Racing, was a complete and utter failure, producing no top 10s, six DNFs and results so poor that Stremme didn’t even finish out the season.

His replacement, current Penske flagship driver Brad Keselowski, had almost as bad a campaign in his first full season in the No. 12, taking until the season’s 31st race at Martinsville to finally crack the top 10.

All of these drivers were no strangers to the same handling woes that left the ‘Dinger, as he put it on lap 339 this Sunday, “[not knowing] what to say about the car anymore.”

Busch came on in the midst of a disastrous period for Penske Racing that saw the team so plagued by aero push that they were experimenting with Dodge’s two-year-old Intrepid bodies on intermediate ovals. Stremme took over for a No. 12 team that was struggling long before Newman became a lame-duck driver that summer. And Keselowski gained nothing from Stremme’s fruitless efforts in that ride.

Three past cases, two different outcomes. Busch and Keselowski overcame their struggles to find success on the Captain’s ship. Stremme washed out. The travails facing Allmendinger and the No. 22 team are not insurmountable. Trouble is, if history is any past indicator, Allmendinger has a lot more in common with the washout than with the winners.

Both Busch and Keselowski came to Penske Racing proven stock car winners. Busch was scarcely a year removed from the 2004 Cup championship and won three races in 2005 before losing his ride at Roush Racing in November of that year. Keselowski came over from the juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports camp having won four races in 2009 and making the strongest push for the Nationwide Series title a regular had since Martin Truex Jr. won it in 2005.

Stremme had, and to this still has not, ever won a stock car race at the NASCAR national touring series level upon taking a seat at Penske. Neither has Allmendinger.

Both Busch and Keselowski had an outlet to keep their confidence up during their initial struggles with Penske’s Cup operation. Busch ran the first Nationwide Series races of his career in 2006, taking over the same Penske team that teammate Newman had won five consecutive starts with only a season ago; Busch won his first career start at Texas, scored another trophy at Watkins Glen and finished outside the top 10 with the team only once in seven starts.

Keselowski built Penske’s Nationwide Series program from the ground up during his 2010 season, clinching the series championship two weeks early at Texas in November.

Stremme didn’t run any support races during his ill-fated return to Cup in 2009. Same situation for Allmendinger … the Cup car’s all he’s got and what he’s got isn’t running well.

But perhaps most significant, both Busch and Keselowski came to Penske Racing in moves that were studied and planned long before the 25th hour; Busch opted to make the move less than a year removed from winning the championship with Ford and Roush Racing, months before the end of the 2005 season, while Keselowski left the Hendrick Motorsports camp and the role of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s protégé in search of a Cup ride.

Both drivers made their decisions well before the off-season, and both obviously had to put thought into it, having left the premier Cup organizations of their times in both cases.

Allmendinger’s move could not possibly have been as calculated based on timeframe alone; the No. 22 seat wasn’t even considered in play until after the close of the 2011 season … and thanks to nothing more than a Youtube video busting Busch for being anything but sponsor-friendly for sponsor Shell.

On paper, Penske Racing may well be a step up from Richard Petty Motorsports, but only a few months into the switch, Penske has announced it is going from Dodge’s flagship operation back to Ford for the first time since 2002 (RPM already ran Fords).

Perhaps even more striking; the No. 43 car that Allmendinger left for Penske was in the pit stall next to the No. 22’s this Sunday at Dover. And while the No. 22 limped through 400 laps, the No. 43 car brought home a composed top 10 result that, had it not been for a soft brake pedal under green-flag conditions, may have been even more (Aric Almirola told his team mid-race “we’d be dangerous if I had brakes”).

The entire episode of Busch’s profane tirade that pushed the No. 22 car into Silly Season after it was over forced the hand of all involved; spontaneous decisions had to be made. And Allmendinger certainly had a strong case for being the best option on the table.

Problem is, it was still a 25th-hour hire that was not fully calculated. And one had to look no further than Sunday’s race at Dover to see a complete lack of chemistry between team and driver.

Losing a spot to teammate Keselowski around lap 197, Allmendinger snapped at his spotter, exclaiming “[tell me if] there’s any other way you want me to drive the car” a mere 45 laps after pleading with the same spotter to help him find different lines on the track to try. “I’m not trying to tell you how to drive, I’m just telling you what I see” the roof responded. It wasn’t much further into the race before these quips stopped being addressed over the radio.

But annoyance and frustration got taken to a new level during an exchange between driver and crew around lap 331, as the team discussed pit strategy over the radio:

Allmendinger (on proposed adjustments): “It may not matter, the way I’m wrecking in the corners.”
Team: “Are you saying you are loose?”
Allmendinger: “We’re loose everywhere, as usual. We go tight for a few laps, then loose … same pattern every pit stop.”
Team: “I didn’t realize you were loose.”
Allmendinger: “Can you see turn 4?”

This writer didn’t hear Allmendinger complain of a loose condition at any point during this run prior to the lap 331 exchange, but regardless of who was at fault, this lack of communication is beyond distressing for any race team. Either the driver is too exasperated to relay the same old problem again and again, or the team lost track of feedback. Neither is an acceptable situation.

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The larger issue brewing for Penske Racing’s No. 22 team, though, is bigger than the growing pains of a new driver and team coming together. It’s whether the same team that staggered across the finish line of the 2011 season exhausted from driver Busch’s constant berating (crew chief Steve Addington left of his own accord) can handle another extended period of driver exasperation and frustration.

Entirely his fault or the product of bad luck, ‘Dinger’s had a 2012 start that’s not acceptable for an organization the caliber of Penske Racing and a sponsor that left proven race winner Kevin Harvick, with whom they scored a Daytona 500 title, to come to the Penske fold. Business opportunities with Penske’s automotive empire notwithstanding, they came to win and they’re far removed from that goal a third of the way into this season.

Meanwhile, although the No. 22 radio may well have been devoid of the profanity Busch was so known for a season ago, the tension between driver and team remained. It’s almost as if Kurt Busch never left.

Considering how that marriage ended for the No. 22 bunch, both Penske Racing and AJ Allmendinger have extreme cause for concern as the summer stretch heats up.

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