Remarkably, all three Team Penske drivers have all advanced out of the second round and into the Round of 8 which begins this weekend at the Texas Motor Speedway. With eight NASCAR Cup Series playoff spots available in the semifinal round, they nearly took half of them. You’d think it would make their chances of sending at least one driver to the Championship 4 next month at the Phoenix Raceway much higher right?
They’ve put a driver in the Championship 4 in four of the last five years and five of the seven overall. With having three drivers vying for four spots among eight total participants, their odds should be strong.
Instead, one could make a case that none of the three marches on though. That’s because the start of this round really doesn’t suit them all that well. The first two races are on 550 tracks. These have been their kryptonite this season. Brad Keselowski even warned of that before the playoffs even got started.
“The 550 tracks have been a daunting challenge for us this season. We just haven’t shown the speed. The combination of offseason rules enforcement changes and the parts freeze just kind of completely neutered us as a group and we just haven’t shown that speed all year long,” Keselowski said on 550 tracks. “I think the closest we’ve been was probably Ryan Blaney at Atlanta, which was more kind of that long run speed and smooth driving than anything else. He executed very very well, but outside of that I can’t recall a moment where I’ve seen the Fords be in a spot of dominance or a spot where they’ve controlled a race at a 550 track.”
He’s not wrong. Ford has 2 wins in 10 550 races this season. Chevrolet has five wins with Toyota the other three. For Keselowski, he’s had just three top five finishes on them this season. His teammate Joey Logano has finished 15th or worse in six of those nine without a single top five to his name.
Aric Almirola was another playoff driver and said back in late August that he too agrees with Keselowski in the sense of a 550 deficit. He’s not had a top 15 in any of the 10 races.
“I would say that there’s some truth to that,” said the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. “There’s some things about what we have with Ford that certainly has not been advantageous for us on the 550 racetracks, absolutely. And the other manufacturers have seemed to find a lot of speed on those tracks with the rules package going into this season and with the parts freeze and lack of development for this year and lack of windtunnel time and all those things has certainly piled up against us, I would say.”
So, in saying that, there’s three Toyota’s (Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) and two Chevrolet’s (Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott) that the Penske trio is trying to beat on these tracks.
Busch, has won on two of them (Kansas, Pocono). Hamlin won on the latest (Las Vegas). Larson, has won twice but should have at the very minimum 3-4.
In Vegas 1, Larson led 103 of 267 laps and won the second stage.
For Atlanta, Larson led 269 of 325 laps and swept both stages. He’d finish runner-up.
For Kansas, Larson led 132 of 267 laps, won the second stage but was caught up in an incident at the end of the race while restarting in the top five.
For the Coke 600, Larson swept all three stages and led an astounding 327 of 400 laps in a dominating win.
For Pocono 1, Larson led 15 times and Bowman 16 laps of the 130 but it was Bowman who won.
For Pocono 2, Bowman led 18 laps and Byron 22 laps of the 140, including winning the second stage, but it was Larson who finished runner-up.
In 10 races on intermediate tracks this season, Larson has three wins, three runner-ups, seven top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.
He’s led 1,351 out of 2,913 possible laps (46%) in these 10 races which also accounts for 67% (1,351 out of 2,011) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 10 stages and has been in the top two in 13 of the 21 stages run on these tracks.
Hamlin, is looking for a third straight opening race of each round win. Take out the two wildcard races at Talladega and the ROVAL and you’d see that Hamlin has led 42% (645 of 1,534) laps this postseason.
They all have the speed. Busch, has eight top five finishes in his last nine 550 starts with his worst finish in that stretch being seventh at Michigan. 6 of his last 7 he’s been in the top 3. He won this very Texas race last year and won at Kansas back in May.
Truex Jr. has five top sixes on these same 10 races as well as three top sixes in his last four at Texas and seven top sixes in his last nine at Kansas.
Can the Penske trio top this? Do they have the speed when they said all along the 550 tracks are their worst?
The top teams in Texas history is Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing. They’ve each won nine times. Penske is next best at four.
Ford, has only produced seven wins all season. Chevy has 15 and Toyota 10. Ford has at the very minimum 10 wins in every season since 2017. They had 18 last year. They’d have to win 75% of the final four races to end up reaching double digit victories for the fifth straight year and sixth of the last eight overall.
I just don’t see the speed out of them though.
Keselowski has been solid in the playoffs with four top 10’s in six races but other than Talladega, they’ve all been sixth or worst. In fact, his runner-up at Talladega was his only his third top five in the last 21 races. He’s not won since Talladega in April (23 races ago) and has led just 44 laps since the start of August.
Logano is in a similar boat. He’s had four top 10’s in the playoffs, two of which in the top five, but one of those was at Talladega too. He’s only had six top fives in his last 23 starts and four in the last 11 at that. Also, out of the last 18 races he’s led just 84 laps. That dates back to Memorial Day weekend in Charlotte and 37 of those came at Daytona in August. His last win came 26 races ago in Bristol during the spring race.
Does he bode well with long winless streaks like that in a round that you’re more than likely going to have to win a race at with two of those three tracks not being your best and the only times you’ve won this season being at a superspeedway (Keselowski) or a dirt track (Logano)?
Keselowski, has finished outside the top 10 in six of his last 10 Texas starts. Logano, has been 15th or worse in four of his last five Kansas races.
That’s why maybe Blaney is their best hope. He’s been faster and more consistent. He’s had seven top fives in the last 12 races and nine top sixes over the last 15 in general. Since the Indy road course, he’s had five top fives including a pair of wins and a runner-up. He’s also led 151 laps in the last 11 races at that.
Plus, out of those Ford wins on 550 tracks, Blaney has two of them. He’s also had seven top sixes in those 10 races to go along with a pair of top four finishes last year at Texas.
Can Penske keep up with the others in the speed department this round? Likely not. They need to hope for the others to make some mistakes and them just keep doing what they’ve been doing and that’s scoring stage points and getting as many top seven or eight finishes in the end as they can with clean days. They can’t afford mistakes. They have to be perfect.
The thing is, if they can be and come out of these next two weeks looking good, then watch out. The 750 tracks are where they’re good at.
Blaney, has four top fives in his last five starts at Martinsville including a pair of runner-ups last year. Logano, has six top eight’s in his last seven there including a sixth place run in the spring race. Keselowski, saw his 10 race top 10 streak come to an end there this spring too but he had nine top fives in his previous 10 races on that track prior.
If they can get to Martinsville with a shot, then all bets are off. Phoenix has been a good track for them lately too. Logano, led 143 of 312 laps back in March and finished runner-up. Keselowski, led 19 laps himself and finished fourth. Blaney, led 35 laps and was 10th. He actually won the first stage and was fifth in Stage 2. Keselowski, was third and fourth respectively in the two stages while Logano was second and first respectively.
That’s a stage sweep of each, 63% of the laps led (197 of 312) and two top four finishes and all three in the top 10. Both Logano and Keselowski were in the Final Four last year and know what it takes. Plus, Logano has nine top six finishes on 750 tracks this season which includes road courses. On short tracks, he was runner-up in Phoenix, sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond, fifth at Dover, fourth in Loudon, fifth at Richmond 2 and 11th in Bristol.
They have the speed on the 750 tracks, it’s the 550 ones first that they have to worry about.