A year that began with so much promise hasn't turned out very well for Penske Racing's Sprint Cup team.
Heading into NASCAR's Saturday night race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman - finishing out his run with Penske before joining Tony Stewart's new team in 2009 - is 15th in the points, former series champion Kurt Busch is 18th and Sam Hornish Jr., making the transition from open-wheel to stock cars, is 37th in the all-important car owner points and still without a top-10 finish in 31 career Cup starts.
That's why Busch, Hornish and David Stremme, who will replace Newman, spent an arduous day of testing at Kentucky Speedway earlier this week, going through a whole list of items intended to make their 2009 considerably brighter.
Among the things the Penske team worked on were shaking down the new Dodge race engine and doing a trial run of next season's test rules.
"We have four or five different projects we're working on," Busch said. "We didn't feel like we tested that well at Lowe's Motor Speedway last week, so we had to make some changes in our plans. We were going to go to the Indianapolis tire test, but instead we came here and decided to blend this test into the procedures for what's going to happen next year."
"We didn't know how many cars we were going to be able to get ready in time (for the test), but next year you can have as many drivers as you want test. We just have to change seats and seat belts. We're working on that to see how quick we can make that happen as well as comparing Sam's car to my car. We're also spending more time on the engines."
The new engine, which made its debut at Kansas two weeks ago, is a cause for optimism for the all the Dodge teams, which have generally underperformed this year. But Busch said there are still some big question marks about the new power plant, particularly the balance between water and oil temperatures.
"The more testing we can get the better. ...We just need to get more miles on it to balance that out as well as measure its durability," Busch said. "It's just like everything else, it takes time. If it were lightning in a bottle we'd have poured it in a long time ago."
Hornish, whose season-best 13th-place finish came in May at Charlotte, said the Kentucky test was a very positive step for the entire team.
"The biggest thing is getting an idea of how things are going to work next year with testing rules and putting all three drivers in a car," the three-time IndyCar champion said. "We're getting different people's opinion on what the car feels like.
"We're looking forward to 2009. We have a guy who is a past champion in the series and David, who has two years of experience up here and is eager to go out and prove he deserves to be up here. I'm still trying to learn my way a little bit, but I think it's going to be better. There will be a lot more communication between the three of us."
Busch said the latest test was just another step in a long, difficult process to make the team more competitive.
"We have to have the best drivers surrounded by the best crew to get ahead of the curve," he said. "Right now, we're just trying to get caught up to it."