SI.com's Mark Beech offers the most intriguing news, notes and analysis fans need to know heading into each week's race.
With the Sprint Cup Series returning to Daytona this weekend, it seems like a good time to take stock of Penske Racing, the team that scored a such an unqualified success at the track in February. After their one-two finish in the Daytona 500, both Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch seemed more than ready to build on their solid 2007 campaigns, when Busch won two races and Newman earned five top 10 finishes in the last 10 races.
But things haven't gone so well since. Indeed, no team has fallen further, faster. Until his lucky win in the rain at New Hampshire last week, the 2008 season had been a nightmare for Busch and crew chief Pat Tryson. After their runner-up finish in the 500, the pair which had worked so well together last year had teamed up for only one other top 10 finish. And things had been only marginally better for Newman, whose best finish since Daytona had been a fourth-place run at Texas back on April 6.
What's going on here? For his part, Newman has been unhappy with the engines he's been racing with. He's blown two of them on the track so far this year and, in another race, had to go to the back of the line after his team was forced to replace the engine it had qualified with. After nine years -- and with only one victory in the last 98 Cup races -- Newman seems to be at the end of his rope. As my colleague Tim Tuttle wrote the other day, the speculation is that he is on his way out at the end of the year, possibly to a team co-owned by Tony Stewart. Even though Martin Truex Jr. is a solid replacement for Penske, there's not much in his record that stacks up to Flyin' Ryan's record of achievement in Cup racing.
Despite Newman's complaints, Penske Racing president Tim Cindric feels the main problem isn't with the team's engine program. "We're behind on what we do relative to the geometry of these cars," he says. "The guys who've had winning streaks this year -- Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne -- each of them found something before anybody else. These cars are so similar, a small change gives you a big advantage."
So the official line is that the problem is with how the cars are set up. Can this be fixed? Penske certainly has the resources in place, so a turnaround is certainly possible. And Busch's win at Loudon should give the whole organization at least a temporary boost. Unfortunately, none of that seems like it will prevent Newman from flying the coop. Who could have imagined that back in February?
How to drive
Daytona International Speedway
Tony Eury Jr., the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., talks about driving at Daytona in July: "Daytona is pretty unique in July because it's just so hot there. Handling has a lot bigger effect [on performance]. You go down for Speedweeks [in February], and you're down there for two weeks to tune your car in. You go there this time, and you've got one day. Whoever runs well there in February usually tends to run real well there in July. The biggest thing is you've got to make sure your car handles well. I think a lot of people are redoing their cars to get more downforce in them because the track will be slicker this time. We're looking forward to getting down there."
22: Races without a win for Jeff Gordon
31: Races without a win for Tony Stewart
1: Top-five finishes in 2008 for Ryan Newman since he won the Daytona 500 last February
July 7, 2001 In one of the most memorable races in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- driving on the track where his father was killed less than five months earlier -- leads 116 of 160 laps en route to victory in the Pepsi 400.