Sunday, August 5, 2007

Penske out to snap a four-year drought

LONG POND, Pa. - Roger Penske sowed the seeds of his racing empire in Pennsylvania soil, so it should come as no surprise that he has been the winning car owner seven times at Pocono Raceway.
But since sweeping both Pocono races in 2000, Penske has had just one car - Ryan Newman's No. 12 Dodge in July 2003 - make it back to Victory Lane here.

What has made the drought particularly tough to take are the near misses, with Rusty Wallace taking second in 2005, Kurt Busch finishing as the runner-up twice last season, and Newman settling for second in the rain-shortened Pocono 500 this past June.

Once again, Penske's Dodge Chargers appear primed to run up front and should be considered among the favorites to capture today's Pennsylvania 500.

Busch, who won at Pocono two summers ago while driving for Roush Racing, will start second in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. He topped the speed charts in two of the three practice sessions.

Malvern native Pat Tryson has seen the No. 2 team climb three positions and gain 223 points in the standings since taking over as Busch's crew chief five races ago.

"We're determined to give [Busch] what he needs to win," Tryson said. "We're looking to get our Pocono mojo working again."

Busch has been pleased with his car's performance this weekend, and he believes that the qualifying effort could be the key to keeping him at the front of the field.

"Track position is very important at Pocono," he said. "We're happy to be [on the] outside pole and have a shot to get those five points for leading a lap. Big-picture is what we're racing for right now."

Newman qualified fourth in the Mobil 1 Dodge and ran among the top seven in each practice over the last two days.

"I'm confident we'll have a good car for the race," he said.

Pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled in yesterday's morning session, but after he ran mid-pack, his crew went to work on the setup of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet and Junior rebounded with the 13th-fastest lap in Happy Hour.

Kyle Busch, who qualified third, also had issues in practice. But after putting the back end of the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet into the wall, Busch rallied to finish 14th-fastest in the final practice.

Seventh-place starter Jimmie Johnson, a two-time Pocono winner, ended the day atop the leader board, followed closely by Tony Stewart, who will start 24th. Denny Hamlin, with two wins here last season and a sixth-place finish in June, again has the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet on a rail. Hamlin will start sixth and wound up no worse than ninth during the three practices.

Matt Kenseth, who has just three top-five finishes in 15 starts here, might be the dark horse to watch today. Though Kenseth had a pedestrian effort (37th) in qualifying, the 2003 series champion found something in yesterday's sessions - putting the No. 17 DeWalt Ford up to second on the speed chart.

"This hasn't been a track, except once or twice, [where] we've been a threat to win," Kenseth said. "So we just get here and dig at it as hard as we can and try to get our car competitive, and race for the best spot we can on Sunday."

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