Roger and Out: Penske, despite all he has accomplished in auto racing, has let his NASCAR operations crumble
Friday, April 13, 2007
By Mike Mulhern
FORT WORTH, Texas.
What is wrong with Roger Penske's NASCAR operation?
Toyota has the excuse that it's new to the game. But Penske and his men have been in NASCAR since the early 1970s, with some of the biggest names in the sport, and Penske just might be the richest man in NASCAR.
It is one of NASCAR's strangest mysteries: how an internationally successful businessman such as Penske, with his own great racing history stretching back to his days at the wheel in the 1960s, has somehow let his stock-car team founder.
Some of the problems were certainly clear enough during those days of the Rusty Wallace-Ryan Newman wars, when Penske's two drivers got so off track with each other that they even stopped talking, much less comparing trackside notes.
Forget for the moment that Penske still hasn't won a NASCAR championship. And forget for the moment that Wallace, who won the 1989 title during his memorable and incredibly humorous season with irascible Raymond Beadle, never got a second title, despite about 15 years with Penske.
But should the focus of the questions be Penske's drivers, Newman and Kurt Busch, rather than the boss?
Newman, a Purdue-grad engineer, was once quick with the wit and notorious for deflating media egos with cryptic quips that frequently went right over the head of his inquisitors.
It was just 2003 that Newman won eight Cup races and built a reputation as Mr. Friday, for his qualifying prowess. But Matt Borland, his longtime crew chief/engineer, left at the end of last season to join Dale Jarrett at Michael Waltrip's Toyota operation. None other than Ray Evernham had called Borland the crew chief of the future - a highly analytical engineer, more comfortable with computer simulation programs and other high-tech stuff than most most others in NASCAR.
Busch, on the other hand, has never been known for wit and quips, but rather a sort of broken syntax that he will offer - now - in such a way that he has become accepted, or tolerated.
Busch did win the 2004 Nextel Cup championship, with one of the more remarkable late-season rallies in many years.
But as the saying goes, that was then ...
When Busch was an also-ran at Bristol Motor Speedway three weeks ago, a track at which he has done so well in the past, it became time to ask some questions.
Don Miller, who runs Penske's day-to-day operations, said he's not worried about the slump.
"Last year we got behind because we weren't doing any of the 'coil-binding' stuff (using extremely soft springs in the nose), " Miller said. "But we started doing it and got better.
"And if you look at our performance this year, we had the two best cars at Daytona, by far. But they both got wrecked (Busch while battling Tony Stewart for the lead midway).
"Then we went to California and did well, sat on the pole. And we ran OK the next time at Las Vegas.
"But we got wrecked at Atlanta and wrecked at Bristol. But, hey, Ryan was the only guy who passed Stewart at Bristol. I mean. we were running really good, but got wrecked. What are you going to do?
"Yes, Kurt struggled for a while with the new car at Bristol, and he didn't dominate like he used to with the car of yesterday. But there are a lot of guys out here who can't get their arms around the car of tomorrow. It's a different animal.
"And I've gotten to the point where I'm saying 'Stop bitching about what we should have, and start working on what we've got.' Because we're not making the rules - and we have to make that thing work.
"There are 50 cars in this sport, and our two cars are top 10, so that's pretty good indication the program isn't very far off," Miller said. "Some people may say 'What's the matter with them?' But if you look at the facts, there's really not much the matter."
Actually, Busch is 17th and Newman is tied for 19th in the Nextel Cup points standings.