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Team Penske Brings Speed to Gateway; Scores Double Top-Five Despite Heartbreak for Blaney

After a difficult start to the season, Team Penske brought some serious speed to WWT Raceway, placing two cars inside the top five despite a last-lap heartbreak for Ryan Blaney.


hero image for Team Penske Brings Speed to Gateway; Scores Double Top-Five Despite Heartbreak for Blaney

Although they captured back-to-back championships in the NASCAR Cup Series with Joey Logano (2022) and Ryan Blaney (2023), Team Penske -- and really, Ford Performance as a whole -- has generally struggled to start the 2024 campaign.

Throughout the opening 14 races of the year, the three-car operation had only managed to collect six top-five finishes (four of which were courtesy of defending champion Ryan Blaney) and nine top-10s -- in contrast to seven top-five and 16 top-10 results during that same period last season.

But, with a recent uptick in pace for Ford Performance, plus some additional momentum from a dominant NASCAR All-Star Race victory by Joey Logano at North Wilkesboro Speedway two weeks ago, the inkling of speed erupted into full-blown race-winning pace this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway.

During practice from the 1.25-mile facility in Madison, Illinois on Saturday, that pace was so clear that it could be seen from the Goodyear blimp. Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney paced the session in single-lap speeds, while the three Penske teammates swept the top three in five and 10-lap averages.

Granted, the weather and track conditions were vastly different than what was presented in the Enjoy Illinois 300 on Sunday, but speed is speed, no matter what, and all of the Team Penske drivers had it in spades.

For the first time since last November at Martinsville Speedway, Team Penske was successful in placing a pair of drivers inside the top five on a non-superspeedway, with Austin Cindric collecting his second NASCAR Cup Series victory and Joey Logano bringing home a respectable fifth-place result.

With Austin Cindric (53), Ryan Blaney (20), and Joey Logano (1) leading laps in Sunday's 300-mile contest, it's the first time since this race, two seasons ago, that all three drivers from Team Penske have led a non-superspeedway race in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Now guaranteed a spot in the Playoffs, Cindric's victory was the perfect mix of raw pace, the perfect strategy, and being in the right place at the right time. Of the three Penske drivers, the native of Mooresville, North Carolina spent the most time leading the field (53 laps) and running inside the top-15 (222 laps).

Sitting in third with 20 laps remaining, Cindric endured a pair of massive curveballs to park his No. 2 Ford Mustang in Victory Lane. The first, with 18 to go, was an engine going sour for Christopher Bell, just as he was setting up a pass for the win on Ryan Blaney. Then, coming to the white flag, race leader Ryan Blaney ran out of gas, forcing the No. 12 to coast back to a 24th-place finish, while his teammate celebrated the victory.

"Honestly, I'm heartbroken for the No. 12 team," Cindric said on the frontstretch after the race. "I don't know what happened to them at the end of the race, but they deserved to win this race. Ryan [Blaney] has been a hell of a leader on this team."

Even though the win is the second at NASCAR's top level for Cindric, Sunday's Enjoy Illinois 300 was arguably the strongest run of his NASCAR Cup Series career, boasting an average running position of 5.61, a career-best.

The overall pace shown this weekend for Team Penske, on a track that draws comparisons to Phoenix Raceway, is major, especially for an organization that has been off to a relatively slow start, as the entire group works to rebound and compete for another NASCAR Cup Series title.

"Super critical for us," Cindric said about the importance of Sunday's performance. "I mean, obviously RFK has shown speed from the Ford side, been able to prove that we can run up front and win in this package. There's a lot of conversation about OEMs, this and that. That's definitely something we look at as a race tram to try and important and get better."

"Barely being able to run top-10 with one car at Charlotte after winning the year before, Joey and I, best we could do is 14th and 20th. That's last week, the last thing in our head," Cindric added. "Easy to get down on, but this team has an incredible ability to be consistent, whether if it's at the Indy 500 or this weekend at Gateway, having incredibly consistent pace between all of our cars, all through the get-go."

The difference between scoring the victory and coasting across the start-finish line in 24th for Blaney? One lap of fuel.

"I never thought in my mind we were short," Blaney said. "It's one of those things. I'm proud of the No. 12 boys. The Menards/Richmond Ford was fast. I had my work cut out for me holding off Christopher [Bell]. That was fun. I don't know what happened to him, but just one lap short."

While the 10-time NASCAR Cup Series winner is going to be feeling this near-miss for quite some time, there are multiple positives to come out of the afternoon, with the organization showing immense speed, and a Team Penske driver still winning the race and locking into the Playoffs.

"That stinks, but congrats to the No. 2 team," Blaney continued. "They did a good job all day. Props to them and Austin [Cindric]. I'm proud of Team Penske and Ford. I'm really happy with our showing today. I don’t know what I’ve got to do to get some luck on our side. I’ve wrecked the last two points races and thought we had a great shot to win today and I ended up bad, so I just appreciate the effort. We just have to keep sticking with it.”

Recording his second top-five finish of the year, Logano echoed the sentiments of his fellow Team Penske drivers Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney about the speed in the racecars but admits the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil team was still a couple of adjustments away.

“We weren’t too far off. We were just a few adjustments away from getting our Shell-Pennzoil Mustang as good as our teammates were, but not too bad. We were able to grab some points, which we need to do, and a Penske car got in Victory Lane, so you’ve got to be happy about that," Logano said post-race. "We’d rather it be us, but that momentum goes through the whole shop. It’s still a good day. We still scored a bunch of points today with stage points in both stages. A poor qualifying effort, which probably hurt us a little bit on tuning the car and just a little too loose off.”

After his victory in Sunday's Enjoy Illinois 300, Austin Cindric is the only driver from the three-car Team Penske stable to be locked into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, while his winless teammates continue to battle for one of the final spots available on points.

With 11 races until the end of the regular season, Blaney sits 14th on the Playoff Grid, but has a 47-point advantage over the first driver out, Chase Briscoe. On the flip side, Joey Logano sits 18th in Playoff Standings but has a 13-point deficit to make up on the last driver in, Chris Buescher.

Should the organization bring the same level of performance throughout the rest of the regular season as they did at Gateway, then Blaney and Logano should be able to safely place themselves in contention to win the NASCAR Cup Series title, barring some chaos over the next 11 weeks.

Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade, NKP for Ford Performance

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