Penske Racing Puts Chase Field on Notice as Logano, Keselowski Go 1-2 at Bristol

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Penske Racing Puts Chase Field on Notice as Logano, Keselowski Go 1-2 at Bristol
USA Today

When Team Penske owner Roger Penske decided to move his team to Ford after the 2012 season—a season that his driver, Brad Keselowski, won in Dodge's final season in NASCAR—a long learning curve was a likelihood.

To an extent, that's what happened in 2013, as Keselowski joined Tony Stewart in winning a championship one year and failing to make the Chase the following season (Stewart won the title in 2005 and missed the Chase in 2006).

But 2014 has been without question one of the best—if not the best (Keselowski's championship season notwithstanding)—Team Penske has ever enjoyed. That success continued in Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race with Joey Logano winning and Keselowski finishing second.

With two races remaining to make the Chase, Team Penske has now won six of the first 24 races on the Sprint Cup schedule to datea full quarter of the races thus far.

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Granted, Hendrick Motorsports has won nine races between Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But Logano and Keselowski have made it abundantly clear that they're not in this battle to simply have a good showing in the Chase. No, they're both in it to win it and have put HMS directly in the bull's-eye.

Logano is having a season unlike any other. Still just 24 years old, he's living up to all the hype and expectations that preceded him throughout his racing career.

With Saturday night's win at Bristol, Logano proved that he won't be making the Chase just to make a cameo. With three wins—he's the fifth driver to amass that many thus far—he's ready to take the biggest step of his career and win a Sprint Cup championship.

And with the new format for this year's Chase, where four drivers will square off in the season finale at Homestead in a winner-take-all battle, a strong argument can be made that this is Team Penske's championship to win, and maybe not so much the case for Team Hendrick.

Logano endured four lengthy seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing which saw him in the shadows of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. He never really had a chance to spread his wings and grow like Penske has let him since he joined the organization prior to last season.

This isn't Little Joey anymore. This is a potential champion we're talking about.

And adding to the mix is Logano's teammate, Keselowski. The duo has meshed so well and so quickly together that it's almost at a point where you don't know where one ends and the other begins.

They're not just on the same page; they're on the same book. Added to that is a new philosophy of sorts, where if one or both drivers don't feel they quite have the car to win, they're going to give it their all to manage a top-five finish in each and every race.

"From a driver's standpoint, I think both Brad and myself understand that we need to work together to be able to run well, right," Logano said in the post-race media conference:

We're a two-car team out there. We need to work very tight together to make it work. And I think that's the same throughout all of Team Penske, you see that all the way through.

Brad says it all the time, and I say it, too, I'd much rather finish second to Brad than beat him and finish 14th. That's the attitude we've got to keep throughout this whole thing. Yeah, I see ourselves racing for a championship and I see that becoming tough, but I think we're aware of what we need to do to go fast every week, and we'll keep that throughout everybody.

Even though Keselowski already has one Sprint Cup championship, he's kind of in the same position as Logano: They're a couple of guys who have so much to prove to so many people.

Logano wants to prove he's a bona fide championship contender.

"We can win this thing," Logano told ESPN in Victory Lane.

Or, as Allen Gregory of the Bristol Herald Courier put it: "The maturation of Joey Logano continues."

Meanwhile, Keselowski wants to prove that 2012 was not a fluke year. He doesn't want to be known as a one-hit wonder.

Honestly, I would not be surprised to see both Logano and Keselowski make up one-half of the four-driver field heading into Homestead. And if they happen to wind up first-second in the race and the championship, I don't think either one will be upset if he came up short to the other.

Keselowski and Logano have adopted somewhat of a "one for all and all for one" mantra and have worked it to perfection. In so doing, they've led a collective renaissance of Team Penske that extends throughout the boardroom and all the way down to the lowest-paid janitor.

This is an organization that many people doubted would have an easy transition from Dodge to Ford.

Yet here we are a season-and-two-thirds with Team Penske in the Ford fold, and it has emerged as the most dominant Ford-powered organization. Penske's No. 1 rival, Roush Fenway Racing, has become a virtual shadow of its once-great self, with Carl Edwards is bolting at the end of this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, following Matt Kenseth, who left after the 2012 season.

But this isn't about who the best team is in the Ford stable. No, this is about Team Penske and how it could very well be the best team right now heading into the upcoming Chase.

And how the hottest team right now may very well be on the way to becoming the giant-killer of the mighty HMS.

 

Unless indicated, all quotes are from an official NASCAR transcript from Saturday's post-race press conference.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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