Last year, Joe Gibbs Racing put three cars into the Championship 4 in the NASCAR Cup Series. While it was widely debated during the lead up to the final race whether that could be an advantage or not, it ended up working out for them. They finished 1-2 in race and took home the championship as a result.
Now, Team Penske has that rare feat this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. They put half of the four drivers into the final round in the Cup Series where JGR and Hendrick Motorsports have one a piece.
Is this an advantage or disadvantage for them?
Where it could be a disadvantage is spreading the resources out a bit. Instead of one car getting all the attention, both of them are. HMS and JGR can go full hands on deck on each of their cars with all time and resources going to them. Penske, can’t do that.
“I think as we get down to this last race, maybe it’s a little bit different than the races leading up to getting to here,” said Paul Wolfe, Joey Logano’s crew chief. “I think as we prepare here at the shop this week, as we’ve been preparing our two cars, assuming the 2 was going to make it in after yesterday’s race, we’re always working together.
“The 2 and the 22 will have identical equipment when we line up on Sunday at Phoenix. We’ve all got the same parts and pieces, tools to work with. Jeremy (Bullins) and I and everyone within Team Penske has continued to work together to make both cars as strong as possible.”
HMS’ competition director Jeff Andrews doesn’t necessarily think it’s an advantage for them either.
” I don’t know that there’s an advantage,” Andrews said. “Obviously our shop and Alan and the 9 team and those racecars, engines and things, are going to get a lot of attention here in the next three to four days. Not that we would have treated it differently. Given everything that’s on the line, sure there is going to be an extra effort here and long nights before we send haulers out the door on Thursday evening.
“Yeah, I think certainly having a multitude of cars in obviously helps your chances when you’re there at the racetrack. Having one car in, certainly we have a lot of focus now, a lot of resources to put towards that one car here.”
Where it can be an advantage is though, you have two cars during the race. That’s two times the info and we know each will race each other clean.
Wolfe says though once the green flag drops, it’s every man for himself. While they’ll still continue to share info during the race, nothing will guarantee that they can use it to help each other out.
“Then once the green flag flies, we kind of have to run our own race,” Wolfe continued. “Now, we’ll continue to share information during the race. Jeremy knows of any changes I’m going to do on pit stops and vice versa. We’ll continue to share that information to ultimately help both of us.
“There’s no guarantees of who’s going to be in position to ultimately take it. Maybe we’ll be racing each other for it in the closing laps.
“We know the 9 and the 11 are strong. Our best shot, like I said, bringing the title back to Team Penske is us continuing to communicate not only this week in the shop but as the race is going on. We’ll continue to do that.”
Travis Geisler, competition director at Penske, says that for him, the scariest part of Sunday will be Brad Keselowski and Logano racing each other on track.
“That’s my biggest challenge of the weekend, is making sure those guys play nice together,” Geisler said. “I think with the reconfiguration it still creates kind of a scary moment through the dogleg every time you go through, any time guys are racing each other. Restarts are really, really hairy. That’s the most risky time I feel like for all of us, is trying to get settled out. Once you’re settled out, the racing gets pretty reasonable there typically.”
Geisler, notes that whomever is going to win this championship on Sunday is going to have to be perfect. You can’t make any mistakes on the track or on pit road. At Homestead, the previous site of the season finale, you could make up for any mistakes if they occurred early enough. That’s not an option anymore at Phoenix.
“The other part to me is it’s an absolute no-mistakes race,” Geisler continued. “When you look at Homestead, it’s really a recoverable racetrack where you can go to the back, have to have a different strategy, do different things, make something out of it.
“At Phoenix, there’s really usually only one right strategy that works depending on how the race plays out. Very few opportunities to re-pit, get tires, drive up back through the field. At Homestead you can do that. If you have a tire advantage, you can make a lot of time. Not a lot of falloff at Phoenix.
“All those things to me make it a mistake-free race versus to kind of recover and scramble back to the front. Homestead, you saw that a little bit more over the years.”
Keselowski’s crew chief Jeremy Bullins, agrees and notes that their track position at the start can help keep them there so long as mistakes aren’t made.
“It’s an event where you really can’t make any mistakes,” said Bullins. “Fortunately we’re all starting up front, but you have to do your best to stay there, work a strategy that keeps you cycled to the front.
“We’ve seen situations in the past where if you get a speeding ticket, you wind up having to do two tires or something off sequence to get your track position back, put yourself at a disadvantage to try to get track position back.
“A clean race is a big deal, not having any penalties, any issues, trying to do the best you can to have a nice, smooth day to keep yourself in position at the end.”
Everyone has noted that barring an ill timed caution in the middle of a pit sequence, this should be a pretty straight forward strategy race. The ones that don’t make any mistakes will be the ones hoisting a championship trophy in the end.