MONTEREY, California – It has been three seasons since Team Penske has won either an Indianapolis 500 or an NTT IndyCar Series championship.
For this operation, that’s considered a slump.
With more than 200 race victories and 270 poles, 16 IndyCar championships and 18 Indy 500 victories, championships aren’t merely celebrated; they are expected at Team Penske.
In 2019, Simon Pagenaud won the Indy 500, and Josef Newgarden won the NTT IndyCar championship for Team Penske.
In 2020 and 2021, Penske saw Chip Ganassi Racing claim the season championship. Scott Dixon of New Zealand won his sixth title in 2020, and Alex Palou of Spain captured the crown in 2021.
Both years, the runner-up was Newgarden.
Heading into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Team Penske can end both the slump and do something it hasn’t accomplished since the 1994 CART season.
Penske’s Will Power is the leader and hopes to win his second IndyCar championship this Sunday. Power, who won the 2014 IndyCar title, has a 20-point lead over teammate and two-time IndyCar Series champion Newgarden and six-time champion Dixon.
Penske’s third driver, Scott McLaughlin, is ranked fifth behind Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson. Coming off a win at Portland, McLaughlin is the long shot at 41 points behind teammate Power — but the second-year driver from New Zealand still could help ensure a 1-2-3 finish in the final standings.
The last time Team Penske swept the top three in the championship was 1994 when Al Unser, Jr. won eight of the 16 races including the Indianapolis 500 to win the CART title. Teammate Emerson Fittipaldi finished second with one win and the third Penske driver, Canada’s Paul Tracy, finished third with three wins including the final two.
Team Penske drivers won 12 of the 16 races on the 1994 CART schedule.
This year with one race remaining, Team Penske has won nine of the 16 races between Newgarden (five), Power (one) and McLaughlin (three).
“It would be great to finish with all of us in the top five, it would be nice if we were 1-2-3 ideally,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “We have good opportunities to win the championship outright. Getting one Penske car in that position is critical for all of us. We are working hard to bring fast cars to the track and then do the job on race day as always.
“Same story. Let’s put it all together.”
The key for Power has been consistency.
He finished third in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and never has fallen out of the top four of the standings. He took over the points lead after the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, dropped to fourth after the Indianapolis 500 and regained the lead when he won the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle.
Power dropped to third in the standings for less than 24 hours after the first of two races in the Hy-Vee IndyCar Doubleheader Weekend at Iowa Speedway when he finished third in the first race. He was back in second place the following day after finishing second in the race.
Power took over the top spot in the standings after finishing third in the Gallagher Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 30 and has held the No. 1 spot since.
In the process, the 41-year-old from Toowoomba, Australia has reinvented himself both mentally and physically.
Ten years ago, Power would have been so high-strung heading into the final race of the season, he would have made coffee nervous.
This year, for the most part, Power has been able to keep cool and calm.
“Just years of experience, honestly,” Power told NBC Sports. “I’m better than I was. Better than I’ve ever been. I’m definitely smarter and way smarter and way calmer than I’ve ever been. I’ve become too serious. I used to be way weirder. Now, I’m very serious, especially at the race track.”
If he finishes third or better at Monterey, Power clinches his second IndyCar championship.
“That’s very tough,” Power said of a top-three finish this weekend. “Ganassi has tested there. We’re in the best position and have the best shot. We’ll do everything we can.
“I look at the top four drivers as all equal. It’s going to come down to who finishes in front of who. It’s going to be a tough fight and so it should be. They are all really, really top-notch drivers. You will have earned it if you win the championship.
“I’m very focused on the task at hand. I understand it can go any way. I’m in the best form of my career. Mentally, I’m the best I’ve ever been and I’m extremely fit. I’m feeling good.”
In his two previous races at Laguna Seca, Power finished second in 2019, there was no race in 2020 because of COVID, and experienced spark plug issues in 2021 that doomed him to a 26th place finish.
Power does have some concern about the lack of grip on the track surface at Laguna and believes qualifying will be very important because it has traditionally been a difficult track to catch the leader of the race.
Power’s swiftest competition may come from his two teammate, Newgarden and McLaughlin.
“Always at Penske, you have tough teammates,” Power said. “I have to say, this is probably the best group of drivers that have been there, the toughest, which we really push each other along.
“Yeah, it’s a strong combination. As you can see in the championship, really the whole season, yeah, it shows what having drivers push each other does.”
Power is looking to win a championship one year after he finished ninth. That was the worst points finish in Power’s career in a season where he has competed in every race.
From 2010 to 2020, Power finished second four times, third twice, fourth once and fifth three times. During that 10-year span, Power never finished lower than fifth in the championship.
“It really was a bad year last year as far as luck, misfortune and oddball things happening,” Power said. “It really took a lot of us out of the mix. If I look at Portland in 2021, I got taken out last year in the first corner, spark plugs failed at Laguna. A lot of us had bad runs and Josef should have won more races last year.
“It has improved across the board, nothing in particular.
“We haven’t made a huge transformation this year. We haven’t. For Indy, we did a lot of work. The rest, it’s Penske kicking on all cylinders. We have the best pit crew and the best prepared cars, fast cars.
“We’re executing. That’s the big difference.”
Newgarden continues to maintain his level of excellence that he has displayed since he joined Team Penske and won the championship in 2017. He won another title in 2019 and finished the last two seasons second in the championship, but actually finished the year stronger than the champion in 2020 and 2021.
“I think we have been in the fight the last four or five years, in the fight, and we have maintained that” Newgarden said. “We’ve maintained our form. Consistency has been up and down at times. Some in our control and some out of our control. That’s been the deciding factor and that will determine the championship.
“Consistency is what is going to win the day. That’s the big piece that moves a little bit for us. I don’t know how Laguna is going to play out. We’re going to go and play to win. We’ll see what happens. We’re going to try to win that race and go for broke.”
As for McLaughlin, after a less-than-spectacular rookie season, he won the first race of 2022 by winning the pole and claiming the victory at St. Petersburg, Florida on February 28. Two more wins later, and the former Australia SuperCars champion finds himself in his first IndyCar Series title fight.
“I think 2021 was a big kick in the butt for a lot of people and showed how tough this championship is now,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports. “It made Josef and Will think of what they needed to improve and become even stronger. Will is a new man. He is measured and calmer. Josef is the complete package. To have those two teammates have made me better and I’m driving better than I ever have my whole career. I put it down to the competitiveness between the three of us.
“I’m excited about that. Josef is the hardest teammate I’ve ever had in terms of pace and raw speed. But he makes me better and I make him better. I enjoy that.
“We won the rookie of the year, but it was disappointing to me because I didn’t think we were consistent enough. At the end of that year, something clicked with me from Nashville onwards. I felt really comfortable with the car, so I came into St. Pete this year with a heap of confidence.
“It was a huge weight off my shoulders when I won at St. Pete. I feel like a more complete driver this year and have really enjoyed that and had a lot of fun doing that. We’ve been fast enough to win the championship this year, but things haven’t gone our way.
“But we have made a really good stamp in through ground for years to come that our team can really move forward and fight for more championships in the 3 car for sure.”
Three drivers racing on the best team in the history of IndyCar are all three extremely motivated and driven. And like most successful athletes, they all believe they are the best and extremely competitive, even against each other.
When McLaughlin was passed by Newgarden on the final restart of the August 20 Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway, some squawked about “team orders” so that Newgarden could win the race and improve his place in the championship to just three points behind Power.
But Power is also teammates with Newgarden and McLaughlin.
When McLaughlin ran away from the field in last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland and never yielded to Power for position, it cost Power an additional 11 points in his championship lead.
“I get it from the standpoint that Scott is in,” Power said. “I’ve been there, and you don’t want to give up a win.
“Yes, absolutely. I was on the radio asking for it.”
NBCSports.com asked McLaughlin about that immediately following the Portland race, and he gave a rather direct answer.
“We are all going to be wanting max points, but Will had the chance on Saturday to get pole, and he didn’t get it,” McLaughlin shot back. “He would have been able to lead from the front and get going like I did today, and he didn’t.
“For me, I just focused on what I needed to do and be strong. We just focus on ourselves and continue to be fast and up front.
“It sucks. We are very competitive We want to rip each other’s heads off. But there is going to be only one winner and two losers on the team and that is what happened today.
“We are coming in the longest shot with the least to lose so we can focus on that in some ways, try to have some fun in the last race and focus on that.”
Racing is racing, and at Team Penske, according to president Tim Cindric, team orders are not issued in IndyCar. It’s “Let the best driver win, just don’t take each other out.”
If anyone can speak for Team Penske’s resurgence, it’s Cindric.
He is the architect for all of Penske’s racing teams and calls the race strategy for Newgarden’s car. Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director Ron Ruzewski is the race strategist for Power, and Team Penske IndyCar Team Manager Kyle Moyer is the strategist for McLaughlin.
“From my standpoint, I don’t really look at it as a resurgence,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I think one of the differences is we had two cars last year where Simon Pagenaud was competitive at the start of the season, and then he wasn’t competitive the rest of the year. Then we had a rookie all year long.
“If you discount those guys, then look at Josef’s season last year. He finished second four times last year. We’ve turned those into wins. Will has really been much more consistent this year.
“If you look at the difference between Josef’s season this year and last year, it’s turning seconds into firsts. But Will has been night and day from a consistency standpoint to what he was last year. And Scott McLaughlin has come on to be a big contributor to the team. Last year, it was Josef and Will we were counting on to win and finish up front.”
Cindric believes the team has benefitted by reducing its fleet from four cars to three. Pagenaud left after last season for Meyer-Shank Racing, where he is reunited with former Team Penske driver and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
Cindric emphasized that Team Penske still had Newgarden battling for the championship into the season finale the past two years.
“It’s not like all of our cars were seventh, eighth or ninth,” Cindric said. “I don’t look at last year as a complete mess. We had some bad days last year and we had a lot of seconds that could have been first. If we turned those seconds into first, it could have been a different race at the end of the year.
“As a team, we have gotten better. Our group has done a good job executing. We have a really good group. Simplifying three cars from four cars certainly helped. Three cars are going to be stronger than four cars.
“In our group, our expectation is all of our cars should have the capability to win.
“With the exception of Scott McLaughlin who has only been with us for two years, every driver that has driven for us the last 22 years has won the Indianapolis 500 or the championship or both except for one (Ryan Briscoe).
“I don’t think when you look at any of the other teams, nobody else is even close when you look at what their full-time driver lineups have achieved. It’s a different philosophy which sometimes becomes difficult in a championship hunt because we fight each other so much instead of having a clear-cut A driver, B driver or C driver.”
Watching from afar is the namesake of the team, who also happens to own the series. It’s been nearly three years since Roger Penske reached an agreement to buy Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar from the Hulman-George family.
Although he remains the team owner, Penske has had to distance himself from the competition side because he owns IndyCar.
If any of his three drivers win the 2022 IndyCar Series championship, it will be the first time that Penske won’t be on a timing stand.
“I downplay that a bit because I don’t think my role has really changed,” Cindric said. “I still see him as the same Roger Penske I always saw him as. My relationship with him is the same, he just happens to have a wing and wheels logo (for Indianapolis Motor Speedway) on his shirt of the race weekends.
“I miss the competition and having his head in the game Friday through Sunday, but it’s a benefit for IndyCar across the board that he is doing something different.
“It is a natural fit for him. When it looks really right is when he gives the command to start engines at the Indy 500. That’s pretty special.”
At 85, Penske remains active, but in some ways, time is catching up to the frenetic pace in which he’s lived a tremendous life.
Would this be a championship where Roger Penske could take the time to smell the roses?
“No,” Cindric said emphatically. “Roger is all about tomorrow.
“Yesterday is for somebody else to talk about and write about, but Roger is always about tomorrow. He always will be. He takes pride in the accomplishments of his teams and businesses and his family, but he’s not going to be the one that is idle.”
Team Penske’s 2022 resurgence could mean 1-2-3 sweep in IndyCar championship originally appeared on NBCSports.com