Friday, July 27, 2007

Penske team seeks 1st Brickyard win

The move of Penske Racing's Indy Racing League team to Mooresville, N.C., was done in part to help get its stock car operation on par with its open-wheel operation by putting everything under one roof.

And that's exactly what has happened, although not quite in the way team officials hoped when they abandoned their longtime home in Reading, Pa., after last season.
Instead of the NASCAR team being elevated, the IRL team has lost ground. Midway through the 2007 season, both are on the fringes of their respective championship points races needing a jolt of good fortune if they are to stay in contention.
The good news for Nextel Cup teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch is their next stop comes Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Roger Penske has gone to victory lane 14 times.
The bad news is that all 14 came in the Indianapolis 500. Penske Racing is 0-for-13 years in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, with Newman having three finishes of 31st or worse in his six Indy starts and Busch placing above 10th only once since finishing fifth in his Indy debut with Roush Racing in 2001.
With seven races left before the 12-man Chase for the Nextel Cup begins, Newman and Busch sit 13th and 14th, respectively, in the standings. But the margin has been steadily decreasing and they arrive at Indy with Newman just 30 points behind 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Busch another 47 back.
"I think we have a real good opportunity to get in," said Newman, whose climb began with back-to-back runner-up finishes last month at Dover, Del., and Pocono, Pa., after starting both races from the pole. "If we keep our performance up, the points will take care of themselves."
To Busch, the 2004 Nextel Cup champion, the formula is pretty simple.
"We just need to continue to chip away," he said. "Put it on a nice pace and fast cars will ultimately take you to the front."
Finding cars that can go to the front has been much of the problem. Dodge has been behind all year as its teams scrambled to adapt to a new nose on the Charger model currently in use while building Avengers for the Car of Tomorrow races.
No Dodge driver is in the top 12 of the standings and the manufacturer's lone win, last month by Juan Pablo Montoya, was the result of fuel strategy on the road course at Sonoma, Calif.
"At some of the races, we've had six guys qualify in the top 10, so we've figured that part out," Dodge director Mike Accavitti said. "What we're still working on is those other 499 or 500 laps to get these guys in the top 10 where they belong."
Dodge's struggles have led to rumors Penske is considering a jump to Toyota, which the team owner and both manufacturers deny.
But other questions abound, including possible expansion to a three-car team by either signing free agent Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother, or moving Sam Hornish Jr. from the IRL. Hornish continues to say it's "50-50" and he won't make up his mind until after the season.
Newman's contract also is up in the air and he hasn't closed the door on testing his market value.
"I'm happy where I'm at," he said. "With the quality rides that are open, they're looking for some drivers to put in there, and I think there is somewhat of a driver shortage. I'll approach any situation the way I feel I need to."

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