NASCAR has been criticized repeatedly for its marketing strategies and selling out to corporate sponsors. In fact, this thought process was rooted early in its infancy when NASCAR discovered that their fans were very loyal to their favorite brands. Automobile brand loyalty was the first example. Many fans today base their favorite drivers on which automobile a racer drives. For Dodge fans, Penske Racing has two of the most competitive drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.
The 2008 season could not have started better for both Newman and Busch; they finished first and second, respectively, in the Daytona 500, while new team member Sam Hornish Jr. finished 15th. Their early success did not trend to the following four races with all three drivers combining for only one additional top-10 finish; it came the following week when Newman placed 10th in the Auto Club 500. The question of whether Dodge can compete with the other manufacturers rests mainly with Penske, while fellow Dodge teams Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing try to make a name for Dodge as well.
Dodge is looking for a driver that can deliver victories. Dodge has only won 13 races over the last three years compared to Chevrolet's 65 and Ford's 30 during that time. The last time a Dodge driver won the championship was Richard Petty, in 1975. Dodge is hopeful with design changes to the nose of the Charger that it will be able to compete with other manufacturers. Rumors of them pulling out of NASCAR continue to haunt the manufacturer. How well Dodge can compete this year with Toyota's improved record may hold the key to Dodge's future involvement on NASCAR's biggest stage.
Penske added Hornish, who is making the full-time transition to stock car racing, to its team during the offseason. Adding another driver and banking on last season's momentum will be critical to the success of the team. Through the first five races without Hornish, the team has an average finish of 14.8 - compared to last season's 23.4. If you factor out the two top finishes at Daytona, the average finish holds at 18.1. Even with adding Hornish to the equation, Penske's average finish still shows improvement (20.1). The bottom line is that Penske has shown improvement from last year's start. Their victory at Daytona was Dodge's first restrictor race win since Ward Burton, in 2002.
Since winning Rookie of the Year in 2002, Newman's main claim to fame has been winning poles and not races. He has won 42 poles but has managed to win only 13 times in his career, which spans 229 starts. Beginning the season with a victory allows Newman to analyze his success and use that data to help pick up additional wins. Newman is regarded as a very analytical driver; in fact, he has an engineering degree from Purdue University. Through the first five races last year, his average finish was 24.0. Newman's start this season is considerably better, where his average finish has climbed to 14.4. Penske is well aware that even modest improvements will pay dividends; he finished 13th last season and was two positions away from qualifying for the Chase after the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
The 2004 Cup champion's personality differs greatly from that of the analytical Newman. Busch, who's known for his temper both in the garage and on the track, has caused issues that, at times, impede his progression as a driver. Busch qualified for the Chase last season but poor showings in the first two Cup races - 25th at New Hampshire Speedway and 29th at Dover International Speedway - prevented him from seriously making a run. His seventh place finish in the Cup standings last year was the highest position of all the Dodge drivers. Through the first five races this year, Busch has an average finish of 15.2, which is an improvement from his 22.8 average finish at this point last year. Improved consistency, controlled emotions and improvement on road courses are the keys for Busch if he is to win another championship.
Hornish's 15th-place finish at the Daytona 500 gave promise to a strong rookie season. Other factors were also in place for the three-time IndyCar Series champion, such as driving for a resource rich team, and a stable of seasoned drivers. Since Daytona, Hornish has an average finish of 34.5. That numbers is a little misconstrued considering Hornish was collected in two of those four races. However, the bottom line is that Hornish has not had much success since making the transition to the larger and less responsive stock cars. One thing Hornish has going for him is that Roger Penske understands both NASCAR and Indy Leagues, which means he understands that there is a learning curve with the transition. Hornish has his confidence and will be given every opportunity to succeed by Penske.
Penske Racing has progressed from this point last season. All three drivers have the resources from both a financial and personnel perspective. Newman and Busch may be undervalued to a degree, which might stem from them not being on one of the more glamorous teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing). However, neither driver should be underestimated; both are solid plays virtually every week. Busch has proven throughout his career that he can win and that he's a threat on any track. Newman is off to one of his best starts and has been one of the more consistent drivers on the circuit this season. For Penske Racing, expect the wins to come from their two seasoned veterans. Hornish, who is currently second in the Rookie of the Year standings, shouldn't be counted on for much more than what he has provided to this point. He is better than his results have shown, but until Hornish can get around the learning curve he is practically worthless to fantasy owners.
About Bob Frykholm
Frykholm has been a KFFL contributor since February 2008.
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