Penske Racing, one of the sport’s elite teams, is currently experiencing both NASCAR’s highs and lows and could serve as the poster child for just how capricious the sport can be.
On one hand, Penske ace Kurt Busch has made it to the Chase and has the potential to bring the first ever Sprint Cup title to Penske Racing. In addition, Penske’s young gun Brad Keselowski just scored his first career pole with a new track record for the Cup race at Loudon. Keselowski is also bringing Penske glory by competing for the Nationwide Series championship this year, posting four victories thus far and sitting atop of the series points standings.
[media-credit id=5 align=”alignright” width=”400″][/media-credit]Yet on the other hand, Penske, like many teams, is struggling with major sponsorship woes. The team announced this week that both Justin Allgaier, their up and coming Nationwide driver, as well as struggling Cup competitor Sam Hornish Jr., are free to pursue other rides due to lack of sponsorship for 2011.
On the plus side, the ‘Captain’ and his Penske Cup team are certainly riding the wave of Chase hope with driver Kurt Busch seeded fifth in the top twelve in his No. 2 ‘Blue Deuce’. In fact, many have termed Busch a ‘sleeper’ contender for the championship this year.
“I think we could surprise people,” Busch said. “I definitely think the race team’s capable of it. We’re working on some good things now and bringing better race cars to the race track than what we’ve had the last few weeks.”
In addition to Busch’s championship possibilities, Penske Racing also celebrated another high this weekend with Brad Keselowski’s pole run at New Hampshire. The team’s young driver broke the record previously set by Juan Pablo Montoya for Cup qualifying at the Magic Mile, with a lap of 28.515 seconds at a speed of 133.572 mph.
“It felt pretty good,” Keselowski said. “I felt like I had a shot at the pole before I qualified. When I ran the lap, I thought I gave up a little time going into the corners, but I had a plan going in and I stuck to it and it worked.
“This is a great spark to our team through a tumultuous period. I’m really happy for my team. I’m almost more proud for them than for any stat that I might get out of it as a track record or a first pole. They really dug hard for me all year through adversity, so it’s great to see them smile. This is a breath of fresh air that legitimizes our team to being able to get up front.”
In spite of these incredible highs, Penske Racing is also experiencing the flip side of the sport, showing just how capricious the world of competing in the highest levels of NASCAR can be.
Earlier this summer, Penske announced the loss of Mobil 1, a prime supporter of the No. 77 Penske race team with Hornish behind the wheel. Just this week, Penske announced that Hornish was free to pursue other options due to this sponsorship loss.
“Right now we’re still in search of a primary sponsor for that car,” Tim Cindric, team president, said. “The good news is that it’s September and not December.”
But team principal Roger Penske confirmed more recently that the future for Hornish and that team are most certainly up in the air.
“You can’t race without funding,” said Penske. “We understand that if there are opportunities for him (Hornish), it’s an open book as far as communication. We’re certainly not going to stand in his way as far as furthering his career, but we’d certainly like for him to be able to continue with us.”
Even more recently, Penske Racing confirmed that Verizon, the current sponsor for Justin Allgaier’s car in the Nationwide Series, is also going the way of Mobil and “reevaluating their options” as far as NASCAR sponsorship.
“It’s true that they’re evaluating their NASCAR involvement right now,” Jonathan Gibson, Penske Racing vice president of marketing, said of Verizon. He also acknowledged in an interview on Sirius NASCAR radio with Dave Moody that this could impact the future of their up and coming racer Justin Allgaier.
“Our intent is to continue with two Nationwide Series entries next season,” Gibson said. “Justin is a great young driver who we would like to keep in our organization.”
Through no fault of Penske or of driver Allgaier, Verizon has had a most difficult time truly activating their sponsorship, particularly with competitor Sprint as the exclusive series sponsor at the Cup level.
“Verizon has been hindered in what they can do,” Gibson admitted. “They can’t do much (at the tracks) and they can’t do anything with Sprint Cup Series drivers, which is difficult.”
But where the rubber meets the road, Verizon’s struggles may well determine the future of Penske driver Allgaier.
“I’d hate to say Allgaier was free to go, but there is a mutual respect there,” Cindric said in an interview with Sirius NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang. “We haven’t been able to put (anything) together yet and we want to see him land on his feet.”
There is no doubt that sponsorship woes and the potential loss of talented drivers is one of the low points for Penske Racing. They can, however, take some measure of comfort in the fact that they are not alone in experiencing those vagaries of the sport.
Even powerhouse teams such as Hendrick Motorsports are having the same struggles, currently without a sponsor for next year for four-time champion Jeff Gordon with DuPont leaving his car. Kyle Busch also announced this week that he would have to shutter the doors of his Truck team if sponsorship is not secured.
Yet, like so many others in the sport, Penske Racing will no doubt persevere. And this year, they may just be the poster child for that perseverance, particularly if Kurt Busch can pull off the Cup championship upset and Brad Keselowski can claim the Nationwide crown.
“It would be really cool,” Keselowski said. “Roger (Penske) means a lot to the racing community. He’s won an F1 race, won an IRL race, won the Indy 500. But he doesn’t have that NASCAR championship.”
“I want to be that first guy to do it and I want to be able to walk into his office with that trophy and see a smile on his face.”