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To the Front
ROGER PENSKE was enjoying a filet mignon at Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Indianapolis on one of the last days of May when his cellphone rang. The news he received caused him to drop his fork: His two Nextel Cup drivers, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, had qualified first and second, respectively, for that week's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte. This was further evidence that Penske, the most successful owner in Indy Series racing, is developing into a NASCAR power. When the normally reserved Penske hung up, he pounded his fist on the table and yelled to the crowded room, "We're coming, baby! We're coming!"
You could forgive Penske for getting swept up in the moment, because no organization in NASCAR has made bigger strides from 2006 to '07 than Penske Racing. Last year Penske's drivers were an afterthought, as Busch finished 16th in the standings and Newman wound up 18th. Like all Dodge drivers last season, Busch and Newman struggled to adjust to the new body design of the '06 Dodge Charger, which replaced the Dodge Intrepid at the start of last season. In particular, the new nose of the Charger gave Busch and Newman fits, as both consistently complained about their cars getting "loose" whenever they went into a corner—meaning it felt as if the rear end of the Charger were skidding on ice whenever they tried to turn left.
Newman, who has won 12 races and 40 poles in his six-year career on the Cup circuit, has always been considered a top 10 talent, but even he admits that he's not a top 10 communicator. In fact, the struggles of Penske Racing can be traced to 2004, when Newman and Rusty Wallace were teammates. For a stretch of nearly two years Newman and Wallace gave each other the silent treatment, refusing to share setup notes and driving strategies. Knowing that the teams who win in NASCAR have an open-book policy among their drivers, team officials tried to intervene to get them to share info, but a personality clash simply kept the two from getting along.
But with Wallace set to retire at the end of 2005, Penske signed Busch, who had won the '04 Nextel Cup with Roush Racing. Busch, 28, and Newman, 29, quickly became friends. At test sessions the two started driving each other's cars and comparing notes afterward. At the urging of Busch and Newman, their crews overhauled the setups on both racers' cars near the end of last season—changing everything from the body design on the Charger (including a readjustment of the nose) to the setup of the springs—and the results have been impressive. In Monday's rain-delayed Autism Speaks 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Newman, who started from the pole for the second straight race, came in second, while Busch, after running near the front, got caught up in an accident and finished 42nd.
Over the last six weeks Busch (currently 11th in points) and Newman (16th) have both surged in the standings, and though the start of the Chase is still 13 races away, the Penske boys look like good bets to qualify for NASCAR's playoff—and, perhaps, challenge the juggernaut of Hendrick Motorsports, winners of 11 of the 13 races this season, for the championship.
"As a team we're making huge gains," says Newman. "Can we surpass the Chevrolets and the Hendrick team? I think we can."
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.