NASCAR: Penske Racing Fantasy Preview

2006 Team Performance
You remember on "Seinfeld," when Jason Alexander's character was going to experience "The Summer of George"? Well, '06 was supposed to be "The Summer of Ryan." Ryan Newman had squabbled and bickered with his former teammate Rusty Wallace for a couple seasons, and then in the winter of '05 Wallace retired. Thus, the Penske energies would be focused on Newman and good friend Kurt Busch, who signed a big-dollar contract to replace Rusty in the No. 2. Think about it: The '05 Nextel Cup champ and the Rocketman, who'd won 12 races and 34 poles in the previous four years. What a harmonious combo, right? Right? Unfortunately, on paper is the only place where The Summer of Ryan took off. Busch won a single race, in his Bristol backyard, and Newman won nothing, only capturing two poles and notching just seven top-10 finishes, half as many as in his second-worst season. Neither driver seemed able to find good balance with his Dodge Charger, and it got so bad for Newman that he petitioned to be allowed to drive his old Dodge Intrepid. Nothing worked, though. And things went so bad for Flyin' Ryan, the supposedly inviolable combination of Newman and crew chief Matt Borland -- two guys, it was said, who basically shared one engineering brain -- was dismantled. Borland went to Michael Waltrip Racing two races before season's end, and Mike Nelson came on board.

2007 Team Outlook
Busch would trade fewer poles (he had six in '06) for more wins, and given his history, I wouldn't bet against him doing just that. It was only natural that Busch would need some adjusting period, changing crew, setups and manufacturer from '05 to '06; now that he's got a full year under his belt, it seems likely he'll be better. After all, he was pretty well saddled with Newman's and Wallace's setup notes and configurations through the entire season, and those hadn't really been working all that well since Newman's '03 season, when the Rocketman won eight races. For a lot of NASCAR fans, Busch still wears the black hat because of his on-track antics, his off-track arrest for drunk driving (when he wasn't actually drunk), and for taking the money and running from Roush to Penske. Still, Busch has made successful transitions to Southwest Tour stock cars, Craftsman Trucks, and Roush Fords. Newman has fewer excuses. It seems plain that the Penske powers-that-be believe that the combo of Newman and Borland had grown stale and stubborn, and wasn't shaking up enough things given the new realities of lower spoilers, softer tires and continued emphasis on downforce. Let's be clear: Newman hates the Dodge Charger. Hates it. No one in Nextel Cup will be happier when the Car of Tomorrow is implemented fully on the bigger Nextel Cup tracks, in 2008. For the time being, though, Newman will re-emphasize qualifying, and do his best to follow Busch's lead. I say Busch is more likely to make a run at the Chase than the Rocketman.

2 - Kurt Busch
Wins: 1
Best Finish: 1st
Poles, Top-fives, top-10s, DNFs: 6, 7, 12, 3