CUP: Kansas Lessons Learned

For Roger Penske, the latest addition to the "One Ford” vision, dinner last Thursday with the Blue Oval racing brass and Roush Fenway Racing team owner Jack Roush, was ”a social meeting, nothing more.”

“It was the first time we’ve had a chance to get together with Jack,” Penske said. “We talked about the ability to be Ford One as we go into the future. But it was preliminary. We had dinner ... there was nothing from a technology perspective.

“We’ve got to get the cars, NASCAR has to come up with the proper final design of the 2013 car, once that happens then we’ll start getting the pieces and go to work.”

While Penske has committed to Ford, his departure from Dodge leaves a gaping hole in both the Auburn Hills’ NASCAR team roster and an engine supplier.

Sources say that Dodge officials were in Charlotte last week interviewing potential partners and searching for possible locations to set up shop.

Although Joe Gibbs Racing had been rumored as a possible convert, particularly since an engine department already exists at the Huntersville, NC, operation, that organization has another year remaining on its contract with Toyota and is currently negotiating an extension for beyond 2013.

Other teams, such as Furniture Row, Richard Petty Motorsports and BK Racing have been mentioned as possible Dodge candidates but at least one entity would have to develop an engine program if Penske opts to convert his engine shop to build Fords. Although Roush Yates Engines currently builds all the Ford powerplants and provides parts and pieces, Penske still has his relationship with Ilmor Engineering as well as other international suppliers.

“We haven’t made any decision on that yet,” Penske said. “There’s a lot of noise about that but at this point we haven’t made any decision at all. We have to fix that little issue that we’re having with the engine program today, but overall we haven’t made any decision at all.

“Dodge has to make a decision what their program is going to be in the future. There are so many things up in the air. It’s way preliminary for us to make any commitment at this point. We don’t need to. At the end of the day, we’ve got to get the cars, we got to get mocked-up engines in the cars to find out how everything fits and we’ll move on from there.

“We could do a lot of things. But at the moment Dodge has to decide what the size of their program is going to be. We’re committed to this year. We want to be as fair and open as they have been with us. So that’s one of the areas we have to look at moving forward.”

After Brad Keselowski’s fuel-delivery issues at Texas Motor Speedway, Penske Racing experienced another problem on Sunday with AJ Allmendinger’s throttle linkage. The polesitter initially thought his engine was malfunctioning before the team was able to lift the hood and diagnose the problem. But Allmendinger had a situation at Las Vegas that was similar to Keselowski’s at Texas where the team had to change the fuel cell in order for the driver to return to the track.

“We have had everybody, every expert that we know, hopefully we’ll know if we’re OK,” Penske said prior to Sunday’s race. “It seems that we only pick up this problem on longer straightaways, like we did at Texas. We’ve had a lot of changes this week which we hope will give us a solution to the problem. But there’s no silver bullet we’ve found that says that’s why we had the issues, so that’s a little bit concerning so we’ll wait and see.”

1. Game on

Looking for a new rivalry? Then consider Denny Hamlin vs. Tony Stewart – or Stewart vs. ex-crew chief Darian Grubb. Grubb is an extremely humble man, but he still has his pride. And with two victories in the win column, you can bet there is no one who enjoys matching Stewart more than the crew chief who was dismissed after building a championship team with Stewart's No. 14 squad in 2011.

Certainly, Joe Gibbs Racing is banking on Grubb to do the same with Hamlin and his No. 11 team. Hamlin jumped to fifth in the points standings Sunday with his second win and currently holds a 24-point advantage over Smoke, who dropped to eighth after two mediocre outings on intermediate tracks. Next up? The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway. Although the event benefits Hamlin’s foundation, don’t expect the drivers to be charitable once their helmets are on.

2. Richmond awaits

Ah, a short track. Back to NASCAR’s roots. If you believe that rubbing is racing or that it’s been too long since witnessing a wreckfest, Richmond International Raceway is certain to deliver action Saturday night under the lights. Which current drivers have excelled at RIR? Kyle Busch earned the most points (86) at RIR last season. He’s one of four active drivers (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Stewart) on the Cup tour with three victories on the 0.75-mile track. Also, keep an eye on Sunday’s victor Hamlin, who has two wins in his last five starts and a remarkable career-average finish of 7.6 at his hometown track.

3. "More than you could ever imagine"

... Is how Jimmie Johnson describes his desire to achieve Hendrick Motorsports' 200th win. Considering that Johnson was responsible for No. 199 at Kansas Speedway 15 races ago, that milestone is certainly not out of the question. But here’s a curious stat to ponder: Johnson and Jeff Gordon led the most laps on the Sprint Cup tour this season – 362 and 338, respectively. The speed is there, surely a win will follow.

4. Major league chat

Team owner Chip Ganassi made an uncharacteristic Saturday appearance at Kansas Speedway. The team owner, who generally appears at the track only on race day, was understandably dissatisfied with his NASCAR teams, which were 18th and 23rd in driver points prior to Sunday. After all, Ganassi cleaned house in the offseason then made a tremendous investment in human capital and had yet to see a return. But Ganassi made his point. Both of his cars finished in the top 15 on Sunday for the first time since Bristol on March 18. Juan Pablo Montoya (12th) and Jamie McMurray (14th) advanced to 16th and 19th, respectively, in the points standings.

5. Let it snow

Goodyear has its third tire test in four weeks scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday at Pocono International Raceway. And what’s in the forecast? Rain changing to snow with a 60-percent chance for precipitation on Tuesday. While Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola will need to pack their long johns for Tuesday, the good news is the sun will be out on Wednesday with the temperature expected to rise to the mid-60s.

6. Speaking of Goodyear ...

If the manufacturer’s schedule wasn’t busy enough providing tires for the current repaves, add a June 12-13 test at Bristol Motor Speedway to the list. With the Bristol night race just four months away and the track’s plans to reduce the progressive banking from the outside wall to the middle of the racing surface, Goodyear engineers will keep a close eye on the progress. Stu Grant, Goodyear’s general manager of worldwide racing, says his current concern is whether the surface could change.

“The surface is very important,” Grant said. “If you’re only going to treat the top half of the racetrack, the surface needs to be the same – coefficient of friction – the same type of texture as the bottom half or you’re going to have issues where ‘I’ve got a lot of grip on the top and no grip on the bottom’ or vice versa. It needs to be the same. We’ve explained that to the SMI (Speedway Motorsports Inc.) representatives to make sure that the surface is the same from top to bottom.”

Variable banking also changes the load to the tire, so it’s possible that the shape of the tire and construction could change. Avoiding all obstacles, Grant says a perfect scenario would be to have the tires produced and sitting in a warehouse 30 days prior to the event.

7. Hats off to Toyota

Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. delivered a one-two punch to the competition on Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Despite engine woes, which started with Joey Logano's failure in the first practice on Friday and followed with issues for Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin in the race, five Toyotas hold positions among the top 13 drivers in the points standings.

8. Speaking of Logano ...

Kudos to crew chief Jason Ratcliff for stepping up with the No. 20 Home Depot team following Greg Zipadelli’s departure. While these were not easy shoes to fill, in his first opportunity as a Cup crew chief, Ratcliff has managed to keep the team within striking distance of the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first eight races of the season. And who would have believed before the season started that Logano would be ahead of Kyle Busch in the points standings?

9. Consistency in the Roush camp

Points leader Greg Biffle and his teammate Matt Kenseth, who trails second-place Martin Truex Jr. by just two points in the standings, both posted top-five finishes again on Sunday. With five top-five finishes in the first eight races – including a win for each driver – Biffle and Kenseth top the tour in the category.

10. Hearing voices

Kasey Kahne used a new spotter on Sunday – Kevin Hamlin, a former driver and Richard Childress Racing employee. Kahne, who posted his second consecutive top 10 on Sunday, will use Hamlin for the upcoming races at Richmond International Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway while he searches for a permanent solution. Jeff Gordon’s former spotter Shannon McGlammery replaced Kole Kahne at Martinsville Speedway.