Thursday, February 4, 2010
Updated: February 5, 1:39 PM ET
Can BK be difference-maker for Penske?
By David Newton
CONCORD, N.C. -- Roger Penske is a stately, no-nonsense Sprint Cup team owner whose white, buttoned-down, collared shirts fit the image of his organization.
Or at least used to.
What's happened at Penske Racing the past few months reads more like something you'd find on a celebrity gossip page. You can't make up storylines much better.
First there was the addition of rising star Brad Keselowski, whose 2009 feud with Denny Hamlin in the Nationwide Series spiked so much interest among fans that NASCAR officials high-fived him after an offseason meeting.
And it's not over. The two still are egging each other on. Keselowski sent Hamlin a Christmas card that said "Peace on Earth" and signed it, "Your friend, Brad Keselowski."
Hamlin, after being asked if he could take Keselowski to the goal in basketball before tearing the ACL in his left knee, replied on Twitter that he'd rather play a "10-year-old girl."
To which Keselowski responded, "That's because he knows he can beat a 10-year-old girl."
To make the story more intriguing, Penske stole Keselowski away from NASCAR's most popular driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and NASCAR's most successful owner (Rick Hendrick).
Then there is the Steve Addington saga. Addington, who was replaced as Kyle Busch's crew chief late in the 2009 despite winning more races (12) the past two years than any team other than four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, was hired by Penske to work with 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch.
Many have questioned Addington's sanity for making such a move. He has now become the expert on comparing and contrasting the oft-volatile radio voice of Kyle with that of his brother, who can be just as intimidating during race communications.
There also has been the soap-opera element of whether Kurt reached out to Addington before Addington was replaced because of inside information during a conversation with Kyle.
Then there is Kurt's contract status. Although Penske has the right of first refusal for him in 2011 and he has expressed an interest in staying put, he is free to talk to other organizations.
All those things aside, Penske Racing should be strong on the track.
Busch is coming off his best season since 2004 with 21 top-10 finishes. With slight improvement, he has to be considered a threat to end Johnson's reign.
Keselowski gave up his rookie status in 2009 to run 15 races between Hendrick Motorsports and James Finch Racing. He proved more than Cup-worthy with a win at Talladega, four top-10s and six top-15s.
And then there's Sam Hornish Jr. Although he racked up eight DNFs and finished 28th in points, Hornish had more top-10s (seven) than Juan Pablo Montoya had in either of his first two seasons after leaving open-wheel racing.
One could argue this is the best lineup Penske has put on the track.
"Obviously, we beat all the Fords," Penske said of last season. "We beat all the Toyotas. We need to figure out how to beat Hendrick. If anybody has any insight, we'll be glad to add one more person to our staff at Penske Racing going into 2010."
Penske laughed. Perhaps he's already loosening up.
He's right, though. Busch finished ahead of everybody except the three Hendrick cars of Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.
"We are as optimistic going into this season as we've ever been," said Walt Czarnecki, the vice president for Penske Racing.
The organization has every reason to be. Besides key additions, it has maintained continuity among chief leadership and key crew personnel.
"Why has Hendrick been so successful?" Penske asked. "It's the people, the human capital that we call it, in our store. People have been there, the drivers, crew chiefs, all down in the organization.
"We think that this continuity is important. And quite frankly, we think we have a competitive advantage."
Penske does, to a degree. As the only Dodge team, it will participate in every Goodyear tire test or any test NASCAR conducts. Teams with other manufacturers will have to rotate because the governing body doesn't want one team to get a competitive advantage.
Keselowski saw firsthand how the sport's top organization works at Hendrick. He sees some of the same things at Penske, from the sharing of information to overall talent.
"We flew down on the plane, Kurt and Sam and I, and we were talking about the different vibe that's already through the shop with the crew chiefs plugging away and working together," Keselowski said. "Those things are beneficial, and we'll have to see where it leads, but I believe in it."
So does Hornish. He's confident that with a better plan focused on finishing races and not turning top-15 cars into bad days, he can make strides similar to those of Montoya, who finished eighth in 2009.
Hornish knows his future in stock car racing could depend on that.
"That's kind of what we were looking for last year," Hornish said. "In some ways because we didn't know about this year I was pushing hard and making sure I was around for this year.
This year I know I've got a lot of different things I picked up on last year. We're going to try to make everything better, not worse."
But Penske's immediate success rides on the shoulders of Busch, who would like to create a different kind of celebrity gossip with his second championship.
"We're coming off a strong season, but I know we can be even better in 2010," Busch said. "With Steve on board, I am confident we can build on the momentum from 2009 and compete for wins and the series title."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.