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Friday 5: Team Penske turnaround could lead to two teams in title race

The Motormouths team previews the next Round of 8 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, debate whether Ryan Blaney can finish the race and discuss Chase Elliott's ability to get to championship form.

Team Penske has turned around its performance on 1.5-mile tracks and it could be enough to get two of its cars in the championship race.

Joey Logano became the first driver to make it to next month’s title event at Phoenix Raceway by winning last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Could Ryan Blaney be next?

The 1.5-mile tracks have played a key role in the playoffs. Four of the 10 playoff races — including Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) — are at 1.5-mile tracks. Homestead marks the third race in the last five at 1.5-mile tracks.

Earlier in the season, it didn’t appear as if a stretch of 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs would be good for Team Penske. The organization had no finish better than 11th at Las Vegas, Kansas and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in the first half of the year (Atlanta is not included since it mirrored superspeedway racing after its changes). Team Penske drivers led 2.3% of the 954 laps run in those races.

But in the three playoff races on 1.5-mile tracks, Team Penske has a victory and four top 10s. The organization also has led 14.7% of the 868 laps run at those speedways.

“It’s kind of a building momentum thing,” Travis Geisler, competition director for Team Penske, told NBC Sports. “I thought we were pretty good at Kansas and found some things. We were able to go to Homestead and work it out a little bit. We were able to go to Texas and probably be a little better than where we’ve been.”

The Kansas playoff race in September marked the first time a Team Penske car scored a top-10 finish. Blaney was ninth there.
“It’s such small incremental changes,” Geisler said of the improvement at the 1.5-mile tracks for Team Penske. “You can’t wholesale change anything. It’s just tiny little tweaks. I think the engine shop has done a great job. They’ve been working really hard for us to get us an advantage in that area.’’

With limited practice time and single-supplier parts, it can make it challenging for teams to overcome deficits to the field. Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Logano, said a tire test at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway in June helped the team. Team Penske carried what it learned at that test into the second half of the year and to an organizational test at Homestead-Miami Speedway last month.

“Having those opportunities, I’m thankful that we were able to take advantage of it, because it’s one thing to test, but you’re hoping you can learn something, as well.”

They have. Logano finished second at Texas before his Las Vegas victory. Blaney has won a stage at both races.
Wolfe also said that Blaney was good at the Homestead test.

“There’s no reason he can’t go to Homestead with the speed there and have an opportunity to win, as well,” Wolfe said.

If Blaney wins this weekend, it will mark his first points victory of the season (he won the All-Star Race at Texas in May). A Blaney victory also would mark the fifth consecutive year the championship race will have had teammates in the event.

Last year’s title race was between two organizations. Both Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports had two cars each in the event. Team Penske last had teammates racing for the championship in the final race in 2020 with Logano and Brad Keselowski.

2. Keep an eye on …

Denny Hamlin was the driver who stood out the most to Chase Briscoe at last month’s Homestead test.

Hamlin ranked third on the speed chart the first day and fifth the second day.

“I felt that Denny was the best car by quite a bit,” Briscoe said. “I felt like we were kind of a 10th (of a second) or two better than almost everybody else and then Denny was like two or three tenths better than us.

“He was pretty unbelievable. Short run. Long run. It didn’t matter. He was just lights out. They were the car to beat if we were racing on that weekend.”

Hamlin has eight wins between Homestead and Martinsville, the final two races in the Round of 8. His victory total at those two tracks is more than seven other remaining playoff drivers combined (five). Hamlin has three wins at Homestead, tied for the most all-time with Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle. Hamlin has started first in each of the last five Homestead races.

3. In search of another manufacturer

A recent report by SportsBusiness Journal stated that Dodge’s talks about returning to NASCAR had stalled. That keeps the Cup Series at three manufacturers: Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.

Toyota was the last manufacturer to enter the sport, doing so in 2007. Dodge was still in the series then, giving the series four manufacturers. Dodge left NASCAR after winning the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski and Team Penske.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development is surprised there there remains only three manufacturers in NASCAR’s premier series.

“Our perspective as a car manufacturer is we want to compete,” he said. “We compete in the showrooms and the more manufacturer engagement the better. That’s why we love sports car racing because there are nine manufacturers we race against in IMSA. We love that.

“So, it’s terribly disappointing that we’re still only three manufacturers (in NASCAR). We’re in far too delicate of a position as a sport because we can’t afford to lose any one of us. NASCAR can’t afford to lose any one of us. But it’s business, you don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re in the midst of what appears to be a recession. Inflation is impacting each of us from a business perspective. You want to be a little deeper in terms of manufacturers.”

So does NASCAR still work for Toyota?

“It absolutely does,” Wilson said. “We still talk to the fans. We still get a tremendous lift. We’re not going anywhere. Our commitment and our resolve is as strong as it has ever been. I’m not worried about Toyota, but I’d like to get another make or two because the sport would be better for it.”

4. No duplication

There have been 10 different winners in the last 10 Cup races. The last time there were 11 different winners in a row in a season was 2012.

The winners in the past 10 races are:

Las Vegas — Joey Logano

Charlotte Roval — Christopher Bell

Talladega — Chase Elliott

Texas — Tyler Reddick

Bristol — Chris Buescher

Kansas — Bubba Wallace

Darlington — Erik Jones

Daytona — Austin Dillon

Watkins Glen —Kyle Larson

Richmond — Kevin Harvick

Also, the last seven races have been won by seven different teams:

Las Vegas — Team Penske

Charlotte Roval — Joe Gibbs Racing

Talladega — Hendrick Motorsports

Texas — Richard Childress Racing

Bristol — RFK Racing

Kansas — 23XI Racing

Darlington — Petty GMS

5. Been a long time

This weekend’s Homestead race will come 602 days since the last race there Feb. 28, 2021. William Byron won that race, which was the third event of last season.

There have been 66 races between that race and this weekend. There have been 24 different winners, including first Cup wins for Bubba Wallace, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Tyler Reddick.