Penske’s challenge at Phoenix? Its drivers need to ‘play nice’

Team Penske has excellent odds of coming away with another NASCAR Cup Series championship this weekend but also a difficult challenge.

Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski own two of the four spots in the Championship 4 in Sunday’s title race at Phoenix Raceway. Logano and Keselowski have had similar seasons and have proven very strong on many of the same types of tracks.

Logano enters with three wins, including one earlier this year at Phoenix; Keselowski has four. Logano earned 21 playoff points during the year; Keselowski 27.

Battling a teammate for the title

While as an organization, Team Penske backs both drivers’ quest for the second series title, individually on Sunday, it will be every man for himself. Whoever finishes highest among the final four on Sunday is the series champion.

“Challenges as far as Phoenix goes, from my seat, probably the scariest part is watching the Nos. 2 and 22 (teams) race each other,” said Penske competition director, Travis Geisler. “That’s my biggest challenge of the weekend, is making sure those guys play nice together.

“I think with the reconfiguration, (Phoenix) still creates kind of a scary moment through the dogleg every time you go through, any time guys are racing each other. Restarts are really, really hairy.

“That’s the most risky time I feel like for all of us, is trying to get settled out. Once you’re settled out, the racing gets pretty reasonable there typically.”

While Geisler may have been only half-joking about getting Logano and Keselowski to “play nice,” it’s a legitimate concern when teammates are among the final four drivers competing in a winner-takes-all finale.

They’ve been here before

Both drivers have won championships previously – Keselowski in 2012 and Logano in 2018 – but both are also driven to add to their respective trophy collection.

As part of the same organization, they both have access to the same resources. What will separate them will likely simply come down to who has a better race on Sunday.

“It’s an event where you really can’t make any mistakes. Fortunately we’re all starting up front, but you have to do your best to stay there, work a strategy that keeps you cycled to the front,” said Jeremy Bullins, crew chief of Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford team.

“We’ve seen situations in the past where if you get a speeding ticket, you wind up having to do two tires or something off sequence to get your track position back, put yourself at a disadvantage to try to get track position back.

“A clean race is a big deal, not having any penalties, any issues, trying to do the best you can to have a nice, smooth day to keep yourself in position at the end.”

Logano’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe – who served as Keselowski’s crew chief in his 2012 title run – agrees.

“It’s going to come down to the total execution,” he said. “As we see so many times, very seldom is it the fastest car on the race track that ends up winning these things.

“I think we’ll all be fast. That’s where I feel it will just come down to the execution on pit road and those types of things.

“We have a lot of confidence going to Phoenix. At this point in the season I can’t think of a better place to go to take a shot at this championship than Phoenix.”

Geiseler believes the current playoff format leaves little room to debate who is best on the final race day.

“I think certainly you get down to the very end, it is kind of what it is,” he said. “The weird part about it, maybe the best part about the last race, is you’re not counting one, two-points any more, it’s just whoever is in front of whoever.”

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