Morale at Team Penske is Sky High Heading into 2016

Over the past two seasons, Team Penske has established itself as one of the teams to beat in the garage. Picking up 18 wins in that time, the foundation has been set for the organization to have a solid 2016 season.

There is no doubt about it that Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have established themselves as championship front-runners heading into the season. Both drivers are coming off one of the better years of their career, respectively. Recording a total of seven wins in 2015, Team Penske has become a threat for victories on a weekly basis.

Though he had just nine top fives in the 36-race schedule, Keselowski picked up a career-high 25 top-10 finishes, including a stretch of 10-consecutive races spanning from Kentucky to Chicago. His solo win of the season came at Auto Club Speedway where he made a late-race pass for the win on the final restart, the team led by Paul Wolfe is right where it needs to be in the offseason.

“It’s pretty good,” Keselowski said of the team morale. “We ran well and were in contention to win a lot of races. We’re throwing a party on the first night. I think it’s going pretty well, but it always gets better when you start winning.”

The No. 22 team led by Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon picked up six checkered flags last year, elevating his driving style to a whole new level. The team became more equipped of leading laps and running toward the front which put them in position to take the checkered flag whether it was on raw speed, fuel mileage or even controversy.

Sure, Logano won five races and made it to the championship race in 2014. But in 2015, he alongside Kevin Harvick had one of the quickest cars week-in and week-out. It became a habit for the team to unload off the truck quick on Friday, sitting on a pole six times.

Logano and company set a benchmark that the team will be looking to surpass in the coming season. However, with the numbers that the No. 22 team put up it will be astonishing if they can out-do the performance from one year ago.

During the season, Logano had the aforementioned six victories, including the Daytona 500 to go along with 22 top-five finishes and 28 top 10’s. Winning is the ultimate goal for the 25-year-old, and anything other than a championship will be a disappointment.

The first stint of Logano’s career at Joe Gibbs Racing was a disappointment. He was given the nickname “the best thing since sliced bread” from some of his peers which put even more pressure on the then teenager. Change was necessary for him, which is why when he went to Team Penske and it became a rebuilding period of his driving career after finishing in the mid-20’s with JGR.

“We talked about our goal of winning every race, winning 11 in two years doesn’t sound so great,” Logano said at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I think at this point last year we were going into Daytona thinking it was our worst race track and then we won two superspeedway races last year and that was our worst category. Really, identifying our weaknesses and working on it and our weaknesses have gotten smaller which is a good sign.”   

Now that both teams have established themselves as two of the cars to beat on a weekly basis, it will be crucial for the two teammates to continue working together closely. That is something that Team Penske in general has done so well at accomplishing, getting two drivers united to one another and believing in the system that is in place going forward.

In the past Team Penske had some driver lineups that never really saw eye-to-eye. Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman never got along as teammates for the four years that they were together. Kurt Busch and Newman worked together, but not to the degree of Keselowski and Logano. Busch did push Newman across the finish line to win the 2008 Daytona 500, but other than that race the two teammates never worked all that closely with one another.  

Prior to Logano joining Team Penske in 2013, Keselowski was coming off of a championship season in 2012. With the addition of Logano and Gordon, the driver lineup and possibly even more importantly the crew chief lineup is set in stone for the coming years.

Unity has been one of the elements of success for Team Penske over the years. In a season where the team is celebrating its 50th year of competition in motorsports, the organization has never been at a better place heading into a season. Even through all of the rule changes over the span of the last four seasons, it could be argued that the team has evolved better than the competition.

Either driver from the organization feels that they could hoist the trophy at Homestead. All drivers should feel that way, but in reality no other team other than Joe Gibbs Racing can say the same based on stats. JGR is coming off of a championship winning season, but had some offseason changes that could potentially hurt the team. Hendrick Motorsports is always a championship favorite, but is going through a transition period as Jeff Gordon is now retired and in the broadcast booth.

Of course coming up short at the end of the year is disappointing, but everything is in place for the team to be successful going forward. The new low-downforce rules package could be the start of something great for the two teammates.

In the two races last season that tested the 2016 rules package, Keselowski had the dominant car in both races. If it weren’t for crucial mistakes on pit road at Kentucky, the No. 2 team would have picked up its second win on the season. At Darlington, the Miller Lite team led a race-high 196 laps, but on the last pit stop of the night Carl Edwards won the race off pit road and secured the victory, Keselowski finished second.

Keselowski has been very outspoken about the new aerodynamic package, which will give the drivers a little more drag, and the direction that he feels the racing should go.

Logano was the championship favorite heading into the Eliminator Round of the Chase in 2015, but Matt Kenseth put an end to that which also grew the team closer together. Keselowski could be seen publicly or on social media defending his teammate, who received scrutiny for the altercation with Kenseth.  

“I don’t know if the point system has really helped,” Keselowski said on the relationship between the two drivers. “The team setup at Penske is set up in a matter to where I think just naturally it flows open.”

The identity of Team Penske is well in place and it is likely that at least one of the drivers will be competing in the championship race at Homestead in November. With the addition of Ryan Blaney going full-time for the Wood Brothers, it brings new opportunity to the already established organization. Potentially, there could be three Penske-supported drivers in the Chase in 2016.

 

Dustin Albino

Dustin is a 20-year-old, currently studying journalism at Ithaca College. Albino has always wanted to report on NASCAR and beginning at the end of 2014 that is exactly what he did with Speedway Digest. Since that time he has become well-known around the garage area and is looking to attend even more races than he did in 2015. 

Twitter: @DustinAlbino
Instagram: @dustin_albino