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Dodge's presence a Penske enterprise

- Special Correspondent
Friday, Jan. 08, 2010

Dodge's prerace briefings could be exceedingly ... brief this season. Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric will be punctual with the simple swivel of a stuffed leather chair. Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski should have no trouble finding the right hauler.

During 2010, with the exception of perhaps a few others, Dodge will equal Penske in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.

"As far as I know," Cindric said, "we're it."

That's not entirely a bad thing, he said. You have Chip Ganassi Racing merging last year with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and using Chevrolets. And you have Richard Petty Motorsports tethered to Ford and partnering with Roush and Yates. That leaves Penske Racing in position to greatly influence the direction of Dodge's motorsports program and to exploit everything the automaker - which is emerging from bankruptcy - can still offer.

The bad part? Nothing to compare yourself against, Cindric said. (Petty's Kasey Kahne accounted for half of Dodge's four wins last season. Busch claimed the others.)

And those meetings are going to get awfully repetitive.

Q: What are the positives of being Dodge's lone effort?

CINDRIC: The biggest positive is they only have one opinion to listen to about where to allocate their resources. So we don't really have to convince them that our idea is better than one of our competitors' ideas about what to focus on.

Probably the biggest challenge is the fact that we lose a benchmark. In racing a benchmark is an important piece of the puzzle when you look at Kasey Kahne, for example, and you're able to compare yourself to a proven quantity and you're able to ask "Are we better or are we worse" with the equipment we have.

The upside is, if you get it right, no one else has it.

Q: Are you secure in feeling Dodge is sound given the company's financial woes and all the pullout speculation last year?

CINDRIC: We don't have any indication otherwise.

Q: Did you have contingency plans if the rumors of a pullout proved valid?

CINDRIC: There's thoughts and there's plans. You always have thoughts, but to say you had plans in place might be a bit presumptuous.

Q: What are Penske's team goals for 2010, considering Busch's (fourth-place) points finish last season, and the addition of Keselowski?

CINDRIC: For us, the No. 1 thing is to be sure that we've got a car challenging for the championship, like last year. We accomplished that with Kurt finishing fourth.

The expectation needs to be that we close the gap between the two cars we have - in other words, (Keselowski) and (Hornish), there's no reason they shouldn't be competing for the Chase (this) year as well.

Q: But how do you do that when every three-car team is doing the same?

CINDRIC: I think it has to do with circumstances. No. 1, with Sam's experience level on the Cup side, the difference is he has two years under his belt now rather than one or none and the people around him, he has continuity. He has been with (crew chief Travis Geisler) for a season and a half, certainly made some improvements with the people around him. He's familiar with his race engineer. We've continued to make strides with regard to his pit crew.

So, all of those things combined, I can honestly say (Juan Pablo) Montoya is an example to follow. He finished 25th in his second year (with Ganassi), that's close (28th) to where Sam is right now - and he was a Chase contender in his third year. That's where Sam needs to be.

With regard to (Keselowski), obviously we've made a driver change, a crew chief change and we feel like Brad's shown the potential. Although he doesn't have the experience that Kurt has, we feel like his learning curve is going to be pretty quick.

Q: Was there a cringe factor in the Keselowski-Denny Hamlin spat late last season?

CINDRIC: I really like (Keselowski's) approach, his focus, his determination. He has established himself in a few ways. People understand he is there. He understands he needs to earn respect and there is a balancing act there. I think he will come through that fine.

I always approached it where that kind of stuff is between the drivers. We don't understand what give-and-take is. Obviously, when officials get involved and start taking points away, that's another thing, but we like them to take care of that themselves.

Q: Montoya's success has made the third-year spike in performance the expectation for former open-wheel drivers, but does that apply to Hornish? Montoya's jump coincided with the switch to Chevrolet.

CINDRIC: It's hard to tell. That's one example out of an era in which testing hasn't been allowed. If you look at the Tony Stewarts of the world that came from open-wheel racing, when you could test anytime you wanted to, the results came a lot quicker. The difficulty now is nobody really has three years' worth of patience or resources to really ever get to that point. I don't think you'll see that transition occur very much providing (NASCAR) keeps the testing restrictions the same.

Tony Eury Sr., Keselowski's former Nationwide Series crew chief at JR Motorsports, foresees a bright future for his former charge at Penske Racing. And the swagger? It's coming into its own, too, he said.

Q: How good can Keselowski be?

EURY SR.: I think he will be hard to beat. He is a hell of a race-car driver. I like Brad. He's got a lot of talent.

Q: Does he need to get away from the verbal and sheet-metal sparring and be more patient?

EURY SR.: It'll come. They're all like that when they come in: they're cocky. You know, when he came, he wasn't like that. He's kind of turned into that. Most of them come and they're really cocky to start with and it gets them in trouble right off the bat. But he didn't come that way, he's sort of come to it. We never saw that in him until last year. I don't know what brought all that on all of a sudden.

Q: And what of the tussles with Denny Hamlin?

EURY SR: I think he got tired of people running over him and next thing you know, we're in a battle.