Team Penske gunning for a championship trifecta this weekend

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Team Penske’s list of accolades in motorsports is staggering. But one of American racing’s greatest outfits may pull off its greatest feat yet this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

At the end of this past summer, Will Power brought Penske its first Verizon IndyCar Series championship since 2006. Now, Roger Penske’s boys are out to capture a pair of major NASCAR titles – the Nationwide Series owner’s title today in the Ford Ecoboost 300, and the Sprint Cup Series driver’s title with Joey Logano in Sunday’s Ford Ecoboost 400.

“I think, if memory serves, we would be the only team in North America ever to win two major championships [in a single year], let alone three, ever,” Penske Corp. vice president Walter Czarnecki said as he filled in for “The Captain” during this week’s Championship 4 team owners’ press conference. “So that will be quite an accomplishment, and certainly we’re aiming for that…Arguably, it would be the greatest achievement in the history of our company.

“To be able to accomplish this would be really quite something, and that was really our goal from the beginning of the season. Maybe we didn’t verbalize it quite that way, but we really felt we were going to be competitive in all three of these series, and the results have demonstrated that.”

Indeed.

Power rattled off three wins and seven podium finishes en route to his 2014 IndyCar title for Penske. Add in the production of teammates Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, and altogether, Penske IndyCar drivers were responsible this past year for five wins and 17 podiums.

In NASCAR, Penske has been even better. Logano and Brad Keselowski have combined for 11 Sprint Cup race wins, the most that the team’s ever had in a single season.

It took 29 years before Keselowski gave Penske its first Cup crown in 2012. Now, it’ll be up to the 24-year-old Logano – who jumped to Penske in 2013 after a tumultuous four-year run with Joe Gibbs Racing – to give them their second.

“If you look at some of the drivers that Team Penske has had win championships for him, not just in NASCAR but in all the other series that they’ve raced in before, to have your name on that list as a Team Penske champion would mean a lot,” Logano said about the opportunity.

“There’s definitely some legends that they have there. When you get to walk through the shop, you see a lot of the trophies and you see all the [Indianapolis] 500 championship trophies there and all that, so it would be really cool to be able to add your name as a champion driving for Roger and Walt.

“I think that would be a dream come true on top of just winning the championship in general. For anyone, it would be amazing, but doing it for Team Penske is my goal.”

And in the Nationwide Series, a six-win season (five from Keselowski, one from young gun Ryan Blaney) has put the Penske No. 22 car on the verge of the owner’s title – it’s up 29 points on JGR’s No. 54 going into the NNS finale.

Logano’s also contributed with eight Top-5 finishes in 10 NNS starts this year, but with him focusing on winning the Cup title, it’ll be up to Keselowski to get this particular piece of hardware.

“The way it worked out, I get a chance to win another race and, ideally, sew up Team Penske’s second Nationwide Series owner’s title,” Keselowski said this week. “This No. 22 Hertz Ford team prepares Mustangs that are capable of winning each time we race. We’ve been strong every time I’ve been in the car, and they’ve been solid all year long.

“I am looking forward to this race. I was fortunate enough to win the last two Nationwide Series races that I’ve run [at Homestead], and making it a three in a row is a perfect way to cap off the year.”

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.