Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Why is Penske Racing Switching to Ford?

When Danica Patrick rolls into Daytona next year, it likely will not be with her Greg Zipadelli-led crew, but rather that of Tony Gibson and Ryan Newman’s No. 39 team. It has been rumored that in part, the No. 39 crew doesn’t exactly feel appreciated by Newman, and the driver’s comments did little to dispel that notion.

“I wouldn’t say I would be upset,” Newman said. “I think a lot of [Gibson] as a person. We’ve had success on the racetrack and we’ve struggled on the racetrack.”

Newman has won five times in the last seven years. Two of those wins were legitimate dominating wins at Loudon; the other three were the result of green-white-checkered shootouts that saw him go from not even being close to being in contention to suddenly being pushed to the front by Kurt Busch (2008 Daytona 500) or waiting for the seas to part (Martinsville 2012).

After nearly a decade of underperforming, doesn’t some of the responsibility rest on the driver at some point? After all, his boss has won 14 races and a championship since 2009. Newman, two GWCs and a win at the Magic Mile. Should he be paired with Zipadelli, he will almost be expected to match the output of Tony Stewart – both at SHR, and with Zippy back in the Home Depot Halcyon days of 1999-2008.

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I know I’ve been harping on this a lot, but it bears repeating: just what is Penske Racing going to benefit by from switching to Ford next year over Dodge? Since The Chase began, Brad Keselowski has been a one man wrecking crew, with two wins and a sixth-place finish in the first three races. Keselowski won at Talladega in April, and very well could duplicate his effort again this weekend. Keep in mind that Keselowski, Paul Wolfe and the Penske team has done this essentially as a single-car effort.

There are no other Dodge teams in the garage, and upon notifying Ralph Gilles in March that they would not be returning to Firebase Mopar for 2012, I’m guessing the support they were getting is not exactly at the levels it once was.

Couple this with that little incident of their teammate being suspended and Sam Hornish Jr. being asked to serve Yeoman’s duty since July on four hours notice, and you get a sense of the “island unto themselves” as Kurt Busch used to term it.

This isn’t the first time that Penske has done this as essentially a solo outfit in NASCAR. Penske once fielded AMC Matadors during the 1974-1975 seasons, winning five races with Bobby Allison and Mark Donohue, including Allison’s 1975 Southern 500 win at Darlington. In 1993, Pontiac nearly won the manufacturer’s championship, largely on the strength of Rusty Wallace’s 10-win season; this was back when the schedule was 30 races, not 36.

I hope Edsel opened the checkbook mighty wide for Roger Penske on this deal; sticking with Dodge would have kept them in the sport and likely attracted a few more teams to help boost the brand. With the way the Roush gang has been running lately, Ford should change their current slogan of “Moving Forward” to “Championing Mediocrity.”

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Much has been made of the fuel-mileage fiasco that has resulted from these first three races. There’s really nothing more boring and underwhelming than seeing a car, driver and team that should have won the race fail to do so simply because the gas mileage didn’t work out. It’s like watching a guy return a kickoff for 105 yards (likely against my Detroit Lions… seems to be the thing to do lately), only to get to the ten and his shoes fall off.

I’ve heard a number of arguments for and against this. “Put the 22-gallon fuel cells back in the cars!”

I remember back at Dover in 1997, Kyle Petty had the race all but sewn up, except he had to pit for fuel with 21 laps to go, handing the win over to Mark Martin. Martin’s Valvoline Thunderbird had a little carburetor tweaking that day for fuel mileage. Some argue that it’s no different than managing your tires and not burning them up after 40 laps. I would agree with that as well.

But here’s another aspect to consider: these are no longer the 500-lap endurance contests that they were in years past. The distance was shortened to 400 laps at Dover in 1997 to make them more TV-friendly. Think that last 100 laps would’ve brought out a caution or two with the way that track bars were breaking last weekend (Justin Allgaier and Matt Kenseth), or that engines sometimes don’t quite hang together for 500 miles?

It’s no different than driving on the road. Are you going to be the first guy to work or to an out-of-state family reunion if you drive 100 mph the entire way and don’t stop to get gas, versus your a-hole brother who’s going 68 mph with the cruise on in the left lane? It’s not always the fastest car that wins; it’s the one that gets to the checkered flag the fastest.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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