Penske Racing bounced back from a disappointing Daytona to a productive performance at Auto Club Speedway, with Kurt Busch finishing sixth, Sam Hornish Jr. 16th and Brad Keselowski 21st. It was an important race for Dodge's only full-time team. Penske made some major changes from 2009 and early success will make the transition and building process more efficient and the team more confident. When they do well they start believing in each other. When results go the other way, in-fighting and a lack of trust in the decision-making process become pitfalls.
Let's start with Busch, who was outstanding last season, with wins at Atlanta I and Texas II and finishing fourth in the points, the top non-Hendrick Motorsports driver. He would have been forecast as one of the top challengers to dethrone Jimmie Johnson had the No. 2 team stayed intact. But with crew chief Pat Tryson's decision to join Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing, Busch has a new leader in the crucial on-top-of-the-box position in Steve Addington. It's a game changer, putting a question mark on Busch's prospects to make the Chase this season.
Addington had been Kyle Busch's crew chief the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing and was removed after failing to make the Chase in 2009. His selection by Penske falls into the category of the best experienced Cup crew chief available. Addington won 12 races with Busch, but those are the only wins of a Cup career that began in 2005. He's 45 and spent 15 years in the Nationwide Series before moving up to Cup. It has to be asked: What competent crew chief with the resources of Gibbs and the talent of Kyle Busch couldn't win races and make the Chase? Addington has much to prove with Kurt Busch and that will work as a highly motivating factor.
At Daytona, Busch had a strong race ruined by a bad pit call by Addington on the final stop and he finished 23rd.
"At the end, we were running third... should have stayed out... that was probably the right thing to do," Busch said. "Crew chief said to pit, we needed tires. So we pitted with six laps to go. Then it was yellow after yellow after yellow. You just can't leap frog that many cars when you have to restart 22nd.
"On the pit strategy, we were going to take two [tires]. Then, we decided to take four. That's the way it goes. You win as a team, you lose as a team."
But Busch credited Addington with making the right calls in California, going off-sequence with the leaders by staying out once and coming in once.
They got Busch up to fifth for the 20-lap green-flag run to the checkered flag.
"Patience was a key," Busch said. "We just kept working on our car, had great fuel mileage and great pit strategy at the end that put us in position to get a great finish. Today's finish won't erase last week, but Daytona is Daytona. A top-six finish is a credit to this team staying after it and getting our cars prepared for California.
"We got ourselves back in the points. You just can't have bad races early in the year, so this was a nice step in the right direction."
Then there's Hornish. This is a critical third season for the former IndyCar superstar, a three-time series champion and 2006 Indy 500 winner renowned for his ability on ovals. Like every IndyCar driver with -- the exception of Tony Stewart -- who has tried to make the switch to Cup, Hornish hasn't approached the same level of success. But he did show progress last year with two top-fives and seven top-10s in his first full season with crew chief Travis Geisler, a 29-year-old former Nationwide driver with a degree in mechanical engineering from Vanderbilt.
Hornish also crashed too often in 2009 and they were the leading cause among his eight DNFs, tops among the non-start-and-parkers in Cup. They dropped him to 28th in the points, but that was a step up from the previous season when Hornish was 35th and didn't have a top 10.
Roger Penske's legendary loyalty and faith in Hornish's ability has kept him employed in Cup, but he's going to develop top-20 consistency to stay there. Penske isn't going to be satisfied the status quo and he needs to get more than one of his cars competing for top fives and top 10s consistently.
Hornish was caught up in an early accident at Daytona and finished 37th. He needed a solid showing at California and he got it, running in the top 25 throughout.
"It's a shame that caution [on lap 149] came out because I was ready to pass Jeff Gordon for the lead," Hornish said. "Travis (Geisler), our crew chief, put it best when he said we had an imperfect day and finished 16th. We had a pit road speeding penalty and then we pitted and the yellow came out.
It was one of those days. We made some mistakes, but still came away with a top 20 and that's a good sign."
Keselowski was the top prospect coming out of Nationwide this season and Penske hired him to replace David Stremme. Keselowski was third, behind Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, and had four wins in Nationwide in 2009. This will be his first full Cup season, but with 17 starts, including 15 last year, he's not a rookie.
Keselowski won at Talladega last spring in the spectacular finish with Edwards flipping and flying, but it's his only top five in Cup. He has four top 10s. They're good statistics that have raised expectations for Keselowski, perhaps to unrealistic levels.
He'll have to overcome adjusting to a new organization and working with a new crew chief, Jay Guy, who also is in his first season at Penske. Those are big hurdles to clear.
Keselowski had a right rear tire shred on the eighth lap at Daytona, sending him into a spin that began a multi-car wreck that included Hornish.
Keselowski finished 36th at Daytona. His 21st in California despite a late spin was encouraging for the No. 12 team.
"We made a ton of progress this week," Keselowski said. "Certainly, I've got a lot to learn, but at least we got out with a decent finish and our car is not in too bad of shape. I think that was important for us to run all the laps and come out with a good finish. We did that. We just caught a tough break when the tire cut down and cost us some spots."
Cup moves on to Vegas this weekend for the second of three straight races on an intermediate track.
"When the California, Las Vegas and Atlanta races are in the record book, we can get a good gauge on where we stand for the bulk of the season," Busch said before California. "Many of our offseason questions and fresh ideas that we are applying will have answers and results to look at. We can take a look at where we are then and decide what we need to do -- what direction we need to go in -- after these next three races."
The Penske team left California invigorated from three solid finishes.
Doing it at Las Vegas and Atlanta, too, will go a long way in pushing their season upward.