When NASCAR turned its top division into a split-horsepower series in 2019, then made a 750-horsepower track its host for the championship race in 2020, drivers and teams with a prowess for shorter tracks benefited. While some relied upon preexisting short-track strength, organizations like Team Penske saw the writing on the wall and knew a critical pivot was in order.
“As soon as they put Phoenix as the last (race), everybody started grabbing the wheel on the ship and started trying to turn it,” said Penske competition director Travis Geisler in the days leading up to last season’s finale.
“It’s a difficult thing to say, ‘Let’s be faster at this style of track,’ because you’re always trying to do that, but we were really weak,” Geisler said. “We thought a couple years ago we were — I would honestly say — terrible at a lot of short tracks. We probably had our weakest stretch of short-track races in a while.”
Geisler’s point was salient: Between Martinsville and Phoenix, respectively the 750-horsepower tracks acting as the cutoff race for the semifinal round and championship race, Penske secured just two wins in a combined 24 attempts (across eight races) for its three teams between 2018-19. Mid-pack teams would have, of course, happily settled for a similar record, but for Penske, two wins and a bad combined norm for Brad Keselowski (an 8.1-place average finish over two years), Ryan Blaney (11.0) and Joey Logano (13.6) didn’t pass muster.
“There’s a lot of points at (750-horsepower) tracks throughout the year and we knew we needed to improve,” Geisler said. “As soon as the Phoenix announcement came out, there was a pretty good fire under everyone at that point. And we certainly went to work on it.”
The attempt at a pivot manifested in improved finishing averages across Martinsville and Phoenix for Logano (2.8) and Keselowski (5.0) and a pair of runner-up results for Blaney at Martinsville.
In last fall’s finale, conspiracy theories permeated from social media where confused fans were skeptical that the Championship 4 represented the fastest, most competitive entries in the race, but a fix was hardly in: Chase Elliott, Logano and Keselowski ranked as the three fastest teams on 750-horsepower tracks for the whole of 2020, while Denny Hamlin had one of the three fastest cars at Bristol, New Hampshire and Dover which, like Phoenix, fell into the 750-horsepower category.
The final day of the season rewarded the specialists, those who channeled the majority of their time and energy on the track type responsible for crowning champions and one that’s seen its representation on the schedule grow from 33% to 56% between 2020 and 2021. But this is a specialization that prompts a diminished focus elsewhere.
Geisler admitted such a reallocation of R&D meant a punt on some of NASCAR’s largest venues like Daytona and Talladega.
“We probably did marginalize some of our other developments a little bit,” Geisler said. “I would say the superspeedway package probably is the one that takes a little bit of the hit. When you look at it, it used to be its own discipline, with its own cars and everything was very specific. And now with it having a lot of the same rules that we run on our 550s every week, it was kind of like, ‘Hey, let’s try to … pile them together and maybe focus on the short track thing a little bit more.’”
It’s possible Penske’s recalibrated focus on 750 horsepower doomed more than just the drafting tracks. The program’s output across all 550-horsepower tracks, namely the 1.5-mile facilities, saw a dip in performance based on underlying numbers:
Logano’s expected and actual adjusted pass efficiencies on 550-horsepower tracks dropped incrementally each season since tracks were split into two primary rules packages. Despite wins last year in Las Vegas and Kansas, the latter in part to his pit crew gaining him 16 spots under yellow, he’s effectively been a minus passer the last two years. He’s yet to score a positive adjusted pass differential in a 550-horsepower race this season.
Articulating these struggles last year as “a lost puppy, that’s what we are,” Logano understood the depth of his team’s competitive chasm to the likes of Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. That divide persists: Logano is currently the third-least efficient passer on 550-horsepower tracks (only Justin Haley and B.J. McLeod fare worse) and his car ranks 11th in average median lap time.
Clearly, little to no improvement was made from last year to this year, a price Penske seems willing to pay in order to be proficient on 750-horsepower tracks and champion by season’s end. It’s also a showing of strength that invites challengers.
In the glow of his win last month in Phoenix, JGR’s James Small indicated he’d been working all offseason on improving the baseline car setup for Martin Truex Jr. at that particular 1-mile track, a dedication that prevents deliberate gains elsewhere.
“We got back from Phoenix last year, we sucked, we finished 10th,” Small said. “We were unhappy with how we ran. (Engineer Jeff Curtis) and I started working straight away the week after on what we’re going to do to get better. All offseason we’ve worked on that.
“You saw all the dividends for all the work we put in, the changes we made. Hopefully, he can be back in the (Championship 4) and we can get better then.”
Surely, if any new teams are going to crack the top of the speed charts on 750-horsepower tracks, it will have emanated from big improvements made last winter. Such efforts will be a tacit admission that Penske (and Hendrick Motorsports with Elliott) pulled fast ones on the field in 2020. While those two organizations might be firmly positioned as the two to beat across the next two weekends, both at short tracks in Martinsville and Richmond, it’s fair to assume continued dominance won’t be as easy of a pathway.
NASCAR, with its recent rules changes, created a series in which teams are forced to compartmentalize efforts based on their desired routes to achieving goals. The upcoming slate of races on 750-horsepower tracks will benefit the teams choosing this specific path, potentially symbolizing strength among championship contenders.