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Early wins puts Penske Racing in good stead

Rick Bonnell
The Charlotte Observer

Winning a race early in a NASCAR Sprint Cup season was always good but never better than now in the "win and you're in" format.

It just doesn't bring confidence and relief. It changes how a race team approaches the rest of the season and prepares for the season-ending Chase that determines the championship.

So Penske Racing is having a most enviable start. One of its drivers, Joey Logano, won the season-opening Daytona 500. Last weekend, teammate Brad Keselowski won the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif.

The race in Fontana demonstrates how the "win and you're in" scoring system can change teams' in-race strategy. Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, took four tires in a late-race pit stop when most other teams took two or none.

He understood the extra time in the pit stop would push Keselowski back in the field. But he also understood fresh tires all around gave Keselowski a shot at winning the race when second place no longer counts for much.

"As you look at the new format, and how you win and you're into the Chase, that was partly on my mind when I made the (four-tire) call," Wolfe said. "We were a sixth- or seventh-place car. ... When I heard guys were going for two tires I told Brad over the radio. ... 'Well, if we're going to win this thing, I think we're going to need four.' "

That gamble has huge rewards for Keselowski's team and Penske Racing in general. Now there's no pressure to qualify for the playoffs, and that will breed side benefits the remainder of the 26-race regular season.

One came Friday when Logano won the pole for Sunday's STP 500 in Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

The two Penske teams can now experiment with race setups and in-race strategies they might not have dared otherwise. The drivers don't have to worry about finding a way to victory lane. And Penske's research people can now focus primarily on the Chase tracks that will determine the championship, rather than tracks that just qualify a driver for the Chase.

It's a game changer.

"It gives us a little opportunity to maybe do some things out of our comfort zone to find a little more speed," Wolfe said. "We always keep a good log of different setups or things we've done in the past at different tracks.

"There are times when you try something in practice that can make you faster. But you know (in the absence of Chase qualification) you need a good, solid day. So you're afraid sometimes to veer off from your comfort zone to try a setup or something that is different for you."

Wolfe said there's also a benefit in building the cars.

"We don't want to have engine problems or drop out of a race," Wolfe said, "Now if that happens because we're trying to make stuff better (in preparation for) the Chase, we're willing to take that risk."

That's the technical benefit. Keselowski said the value to him of early Chase qualification is all mental.

"You don't have to answer the questions from everybody about being nervous about making the Chase," Keselowski said. "I think it eliminates a lot of outside distractions."