Team Penske Consistent, But Not Quickest in 2016

NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

2016 wasn’t a bad season for Team Penske. In fact, by most standards it was a great year for the two-car operation.

Still, save for Joey Logano’s Championship 4 run, the season was a minor step back from the team’s impressive 2015.

In many ways, 2016 brought the same story as the two years prior for Roger Penske and his two teams.

Logano and 2012 Premier Series champion Brad Keselowski both ran strong. The duo scored the same amount of wins (7) as they did in an impressive 2015 campaign, and both drivers looked like legitimate championship contenders through the late stages of the Chase.

Still, the organization was denied NASCAR’s ultimate prize – a title. For Penske, one of auto racing’s all-time great owners, that means their season didn’t match expectation.

Penske came out of the gate strong, earning a victory with Keselowski in the first race of the early season “NASCAR Goes West” trip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

For Keselowski and the No. 2 team, the win came as a relief, ending a winless streak that stretched back nearly a year to the final stop of the prior year’s spring trip west at Auto Club Speedway.

Penske would go on to score four more wins in the regular season.

Keselowski tallied three more victories before the Chase – two dominant wins at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway, and a fuel-mileage win at Kentucky Speedway.

Coming off of a six-win 2015 campaign, Logano found trips to victory lane more difficult to come by in 2016, but still managed to score an All-Star Race win and a June victory at Michigan International Speedway.

With five regular season wins, Penske appeared strong out of the gate at first glance. However, a look deeper reveals the team’s true struggle of 2016.

They rarely had the fastest cars on-track.

Save for Las Vegas, Michigan and the two restrictor plate wins, Penske’s duo never seemed to have the best vehicles on the property during the regular season.

Penske spent much of the opening 26 races doing the same thing as Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and the rest of field: running behind Joe Gibbs Racing.

The organization had their moments -most notably Logano’s dominant Michigan win, which saw the former JGR prospect lead a race-high 138 laps out of 200 from the pole- but for the most part, the duo found themselves just outside of the battle for the win.

Anyone looking for proof of the team’s struggles to control weekends needs only to look at their stats. Penske led just 1,252 laps in 2016, less than half of the 2,615 and 2,548 laps led in 2014 and 2015. The organization’s four poles were their fewest since 2013, indicating that the team was just a step behind their competitors in comparison to recent years.

Still, when the Chase came, Penske, or ‘The Captain’, as he’s affectionately known, entered the Chase with optimism that his team could find a way to contend.

Why?

Because where they lacked in speed, Keselowski and Logano found consistency.

Keselowski and Logano weren’t able to dominate races like they once had, but what the duo did as well as they’d managed in any year was rattle off top fives and top 10s.

The company tallied 48 top 10s on the season, five fewer results than in 2015 but six greater than 2014, and their 32 top fives were actually one run better than 2015.

With the modern Chase format, that consistency played right into Penske’s hands.

Keselowski and Logano easily maneuvered their way through the first round, and while Keselowski was lost to a blown motor at Talladega in the Round of 12, Logano repeated his 2015 victory at the Alabama oval to keep his hopes alive.

Logano rode runs of ninth and second into the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix, and then scored a clutch victory after leaders Matt Kenseth and Alex Bowman crashed to secure his place in the Championship 4.

In the end, Logano fell just short of his goal in the season finale, overcoming a controversial late crash with fellow Chase contender Carl Edwards but falling short of passing eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.

Logano put forward a strong effort at Homestead, but his championship hopes were ultimately undone by the same thing that plagued Penske all season long – not having the fastest car.

Logano had a fast machine, but Edwards proved to be the fastest Chase contender on the day. Given that, Logano had only one realistic chance to win it all – pass Edwards on a restart and try to hold him off.

Logano tried to make his one opportunity into a reality with fewer than 10 laps remaining, but the move failed, instead gifting Johnson a historic seventh title.

In the end, Team Penske could best best regarded as the silver medalists of NASCAR’s Premier Series in their 50th anniversary year. The organization was consistently competitive, but there was always a better team.

Looking beyond the Premier Series program yields signs for both optimism and concern.

Prospect Ryan Blaney had an impressive rookie season with the newly revitalized Wood Brothers Racing, running strong and even contending for a Chase berth down the stretch. Should Penske be able to free up a space for Blaney in the future, the son of former NASCAR driver Dave Blaney appears capable of achieving success.

Strangely enough, the area where Penske took the biggest step back was their XFINITY Series program.

After establishing themselves as one of the top teams in NASCAR’s second series since their 2013 move to Ford, Penske had their worst year with the manufacturer by a noticeable margin in 2016.

Penske’s NXS program, fielded with an all-star team of drivers that includes Keselowski, Logano, Blaney and an assortment of road-course ringers, managed just two wins on the year, their lowest total since a one-win 2010 season.

The No. 22 team led just 545 laps in 2016, 836 laps fewer than in 2015. The team’s 16 top fives were 10 fewer results than in the prior year, and their three poles, 6.9 average start and 7.59 average finish were all their worst totals since joining Ford in 2013.

In the end, the results appear to have led to increased focus from Penske. The company announced in August plans to expand the program back to two teams in 2017, with drivers yet to be named.

Still, for 2016 they were squarely beaten by Joe Gibbs Racing and a host of other teams.

Such was the tale for Penske in all facets of their NASCAR operation this season.

The company found modest success, but suffered from the one problem no team wants to face – not having the fastest cars in the paddock.

That’s an issue they’ll surely hope to fix for 2017.

2016 Year in Review

Hendrick Motorsports

Joe Gibbs Racing

Team Penske

Furniture Row Racing

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