Competitors Racing to Catch Team Penske
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on April 8, 2014 | 4:18 P.M. EST
Teammates Joey Logano (22) and Brad Keselowski have each claimed a win this season and have had strong cars most weekends. (Photo: Getty Images)
FORT WORTH, Texas - Nobody could catch Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski in the second half of Monday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway and few have been able to do so this season, leading many to wonder if Penske’s "Dynamic Duo" can remain at the front throughout the regular season.
More than a quarter of the way to the Chase, Keselowski and Logano have each won and combined for seven top-five finishes and seven top-10 finishes. They have more top-five results than Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing or Richard Childress Racing has each scored. Keselowski and Logano also have combined to lead 21.8 percent of the laps run this season.
A good start is no guarantee for later success, though. Keselowski knows that all too well. He started last season with seven top-10 finishes in the first eight races but failed to make the Chase and didn’t win until the season’s 31st race.
"You never know when it will end, of having great racecars," Logano said after his Texas victory. "When you have those opportunities like we've had this year so far, you need to capitalize on it."
Even with the strong start, Logano said he knows the competition is lurking.
Jimmie Johnson didn’t get the chance to challenge them Monday after a variety of issues early slowed him. He could have two victories, but a tire problem cost him the win at Auto Club Speedway and Kurt Busch passed him late to win at Martinsville Speedway. Still, Johnson has led nearly as many laps as Keselowski and Logano combined.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also didn’t get a chance to show what he could do Monday, getting into the soggy grass and crashing. And Kevin Harvick has been fast all season but plagued by misfortune. In the one race he didn’t have any major issues, he scored a dominating victory at Phoenix International Raceway.
"The Stewart‑Haas cars are really fast," Logano said. "(Harvick) is fast week in, week out. You never count out Hendrick cars. Roush has shown a lot of speed recently. I think even the Petty cars have shown a lot of speed. You look at the way they've been qualifying and they ran well at Martinsville.
"When you start getting a little overconfident and full of yourself, that's when you're going to get caught off-guard."
Still, Penske’s two wins have come at 1.5-mile tracks. That’s significant because half of the 10 Chase races are on such tracks. Competitors know they have some work to do to catch the Penske cars. New points leader Jeff Gordon finished second at Texas, in part because of a two-tire gamble crew chief Alan Gustafson made on the final pit stop.
"They were the class of the field, in my opinion, because our car was pretty good and we didn’t have anything for them," Gordon said of Team Penske after Monday’s race. "On some of those long runs early in the race, we did. Our stuff is really good, but we can make it better."
Denny Hamlin had a similar sentiment after finishing 13th. He led 20 laps, but his race was impacted by a speeding penalty on pit road when he overshot his pit stall on the last stop.
So how much better is Team Penske?
"I don’t think they’re far and away better, but I think they’re a little bit better," Hamlin said. "The Fords in general are very strong. The Hendrick cars are going to be strong every week. As a team, the Toyotas could get a little bit better. We had a slight engine upgrade (at Texas) that was maybe a touch better, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
"All we can worry about is the balance of our car and getting it handling similar to when we took the lead. If we can do that, we can win races. There’s light at the end of the tunnel for us."