When Kurt Busch finished fourth in points in 2009 — and first in class behind the three Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets — it was expected that Busch and the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge would make a serious title run in 2010.
In his third full season in the Cup series, former IZOD IndyCar Series star Sam Hornish Jr. was expected to step up and contend for race victories and maybe even a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup or at least a top-20 points position.
And Brad Keselowski, the exciting newcomer, figured to be someone who would run well at some tracks while he learned the nuances of the devilishly difficult-to-drive Cup car.
None of it happened.
While Busch made the Chase for the third time in five years with Penske and had some absolute highlight reel moments, most notably a sweep at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, he tailed off badly at the end of the year and finished 11th in points.
After finishing 35th in points in 2008 and 28th in ’09, Hornish failed to show any real improvement, dropping to 29th in points. His best finish all year was a 10th at New Hampshire in the fall, and he finished 25th or worse in more than half the races.
Keselowski wasn’t a whole lot better, ending the year 25th in points and earning his only top 10s in consecutive October weekends at Martinsville and Talladega.
The one bright spot, of course, was that Keselowski won the NASCAR Nationwide Series title in runaway fashion, giving team owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship of any kind since his first series race in 1972.
Still, the Sprint Cup program taken as a whole was a major disappointment.
According to Busch, the Penske organization enjoyed considerable success in the first half of the season, but failed to keep pace with the technological advancements with NASCAR’s ever-evolving new-generation race car.
Put simply, top teams got better as the year wore on, but Penske didn’t. There really isn’t a whole lot more to it than that.
“Well, we had a strong start to our season with wins at Atlanta and the sweep the Charlotte race weekends,” said Busch. “And the second half of the year, the way we looked at our first half after the evaluation, we thought we needed everything the same, and that wasn't the case. ... Thinking sometimes when things are going well that you've got to sit there when you should be continuing to make changes and not get stagnant, so maybe that's one thing that hurt us in the second half of last year.”
Naturally, when a team fails to perform up to expectations, they make changes and Penske Racing is no exception.
“We've got quite a few things happening here in the offseason with structural design changes to the chassis, personnel changes, and just trying to be as competitive and as sharp as we can be through this offseason to make sure that we start off next year right where we were last year,” said Busch.
The changes start with cars and sponsors. Keselowski will move to the No. 2 “Blue Deuce” that first Rusty Wallace and then Busch made one of the most iconic designs in NASCAR. Paul Wolfe, Keselowski’s brilliant young crew chief on his Nationwide championship team, will move up to the Cup level, which should help the team right away.
Busch, meanwhile, moves to a new car, the No. 22 Dodge, with Shell-Pennzoil sponsorship. “With new brands coming aboard and such a new outlook for next year, driving the No. 22 car, we've got to hit the track running strong and get that exposure for all of our new great sponsors,” said Busch.
As for Hornish, right now his outlook is uncertain. Penske has said he would like to have Hornish run in the Indy 500 and he’s trying to cobble together a season for him in NASCAR, but right now, the plan is for the team to field only two full-time cars.
“We've got a couple of opportunities for him,” Penske said of Hornish. “Nothing at this point for a full season. But there is opportunity out there. We've got the ability to run in the first five races on the Cup side. So what we're trying to do is can we mix and match to get somebody in for us for next year?”
The good news for Penske is that in 2010, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing made huge strides forward after subpar 2009 seasons. That means with the right people and technology in place, Penske will have the opportunity to do likewise.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.