A Tainted Championship In The Making?

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With the dominating victory by Helio Castroneves in last weekend’s Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway, Team Penske scored their first win of the season and sent a message to all other teams that they are back – as if they really went anywhere.

However, yesterday it was announced that the undertray on Helio’s car was out of compliance. That might explain why he was able to drive away from the field. Unlike last year, when Justin Wilson’s car was found out of compliance, Helio was not docked any points and is allowed to keep his twenty-two point lead over Marco Andretti in the points. Instead, Team Penske was fined $36,000 and the team was docked fifteen entrant points. Hmmm…

I’ll throw out my disclaimer here. For those that don’t know – I am a lifelong fan of Team Penske. I have always admired Roger Penske and the way he does everything first class. He is very demanding, but extremely fair and loyal to those that work for him. Helio Castroneves is also one of my favorite current drivers in the series. I have several drivers that I really like (along with a few that I don’t care for) and Helio and Tony Kanaan are the two that I have pulled for the most over the last decade. I have no Brazilian heritage – it’s strictly a coincidence that they both hail from Brazil.

But does all of that mean that I want to see Helio Castroneves and Roger Penske in victory lane, no matter what it takes? Hardly.

Heading into Saturday night’s race at Texas, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing – two of the most successful teams of the past twenty years – were winless. You knew that one of them was going to break out soon, and with the Chevy engine – you figured it was going to be Team Penske. Helio was having a good season before Saturday night. Now he has the opportunity to have a great one. He is now is sole possession of first place in the championship standings. But after what came out yesterday, what does it mean?

As the IndyCar Series approaches the halfway point, it’s safe to say that this has been a strange, but interesting season – to say the least. The usually strong teams have struggled, while the winning cars have come from the unlikeliest of teams.

Honda has won three of the eight races so far. Takuma Sato won at Long Beach in a Honda powered car for AJ Foyt, and the Honda engine performed well and won both races at Belle Isle. But aside from those races, Honda has looked outclassed. The Chevy engine dominated qualifying at Indianapolis, taking the top ten starting spots, and Honda placed only three in the final race standings, none higher than fifth. At Texas, it was more of the same. Dario Franchitti was the highest finishing Honda in sixth and Josef Newgarden took the only other top-ten spot for the Japanese automaker.

Michael Andretti’s team has had a good season. Two of their four drivers have won three races. Marco Andretti was leading the points after Indianapolis. They completely dominated the Month of May and it’s still baffling how they didn’t win, although they took three of the top-five spots.

Now that Team Penske has broken through with a win, the big question is – when or if will Chip Ganassi follow suit? To me, it isn’t as easy to answer as it was with Team Penske. With the results Helio had been having, you knew it was a matter of time. From what I’ve seen from Gannassi lately, I’m not so sure a win is coming anytime soon. Whether he has aged, or his personal life is weighing on him or he can’t adjust to the DW12 – Dario Franchitti has not had the performance that clicked off three championships in a row from 2009 through 2011. But the forty year-old Scot is tenth in the standings and has actually bounced back nicely after a rough start to the season.

Scott Dixon, on the other hand, has performed well in spite of either bad luck or poor car preparation. For various reasons, he has started near the back of the field and worked his way up to several top-five finishes. Even after an oil line broke on Saturday night, giving him a twenty-third place finish – Dixon still remains seventh in points.

But from my couch far away in Nashville, TN – it appears to me that there is a general malaise over this team. Listening to driver’s interviews as well as Mike Hull – there seems to be no real sense of urgency. You don’t want to see drivers panic, but now is the time to be concerned. Their body language conveys more of a sense of resignation than concern.

Charlie Kimball, who sits in eleventh in the standings, is still honing his craft and appears hungry for improvement – but he’s not close to contending for a championship. Dixon still has a shot, but needs vast improvement in a hurry. Ninety-one points behind Helio and in tenth place, Dario probably needs a miracle at this point to be in the mix for the championship – as does Will Power who’s further back in twelfth.

Will Power has come to the realization that a championship for this year is already gone. He pretty much said that after the Sunday race at Belle Isle after Bourdais took him out on Lap Twenty-Eight. But he won the pole in Texas and you still sense some fight in Power. I don’t get that feeling from the Ganassi drivers.

Remember before Long Beach, Chip Ganassi publically reprimanded Honda for getting embarrassed by Chevy in the first two races. By going public, the world knows of his dissatisfaction with Honda – the manufacturer that brought him eight of his nine open wheel titles. That was coming off a second place effort for Dixon at Barber. Since that outburst, there were three straight races where Dixon didn’t crack the top ten, before two consecutive fourth place finishes at Detroit. In that same time, Dario actually rebounded. Starting at Long Beach, his only finish outside of the top-seven was when he crashed near the end of the Indianapolis 500 and he finished twenty-third.

But even though the two Target cars have strung together some nice finishes – you get the impression they’ve thrown in the towel for this season. Dixon has two IndyCar titles, while Franchitti has four. All but one of those six was won at Ganassi. Chip Ganassi does not like to lose and complacency is not one of his traits. I’m not quite sure what’s going on there, but the Ganassi team has been uncharacteristically quiet this season. It’s like their fire is gone. As we approach the halfway point of the season, I now wonder if any of the three Ganassi drivers will visit victory lane this season.

Which brings me back to Helio Castroneves. As an Helio fan, I have quite the dilemma. Although he has won the Indianapolis 500 three times, the one thing that is missing on Helio’s resume is an IndyCar championship. Now that Tony Kanaan has won the Indianapolis 500, if you go back as far as 1999; there are only two drivers that won the Indianapolis 500, but not a championship – Helio Castroneves and Buddy Rice. Helio would like to have his name removed from that short list, but at what price?

Fans of college athletics are used to seeing their teams stripped of victories and championships due to non-compliance. It’s gotten to the point where they take it in stride. The school three hours to the west of here formerly known as Memphis State University made a trip to the 2008 NCAA Basketball Championship game. Unfortunately, they had gotten there on the back of Derrick Rose who had been deemed ineligible by the NCAA. All of the Tiger’s wins for the 2007-08 season were vacated. Yet, the fans of that wonderful institution of higher learning still collectively poke out their chests in pride over that season that has been stricken from the record. Maybe I’m incredibly naïve, but I don’t want to see one of my favorite drivers score a win, much less a championship that way. It just feels a little…dirty.

Helio Castroneves has made it clear that he wants a championship before he retires. Team Penske was needing a win just to show themselves they still could. Whether the lack of compliance was intentional or not – you draw your own conclusions. Regardless, if Helio now goes on to win the championship by only a few points – it will be forever tainted. Something tells me that’s not the way that Helio Castroneves and Roger Penske want to “earn” their championship. Having a tainted championship in the court of public opinion is a high price to pay.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “A Tainted Championship In The Making?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    With as meticulous and organized as Team Penske is, it is extremely difficult to believe this was unintentional.

    • There was a race a few years ago in which the rear wings of both Penske cars collapsed. Shaving off a little too much weight there?

  2. This reminds me of the baseball player in a hitting slump who in desperation uses a corked bat. He will do practicly anything to right the ship. Unfortunatle for him the bat shatters from a curveball and he is exposed.

  3. I’m glad you said something about the Ganassi team seeming resigned to their situation. I’ve noticed it too in the driver interviews. I’ve got to think Franchitti is retiring after this season. I wonder if Chip will overhaul the team, or just look for a replacement for Dario. He doesn’t strike me as being a patient man like the Captain. I could see him wiping the slate clean and starting over in 2014.

  4. Ganassi has been having major problems in Nascar the last couple of years. Its finally caught up to him in Indy car as well.

    They are not handling this issue with Penske very well.

  5. Scott Dixon owns Mid-Ohio.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    It seems to me that having the tunnel exit lower than allowed would result in a disadvantage, not an advantage. 7.575 is lower than 7.600. That ain’t no taint.

    • That’s correct. Not to say that the car was inside the rules (it wasn’t, obviously), but for the sake of downforce, you want the tunnel exit to be HIGHER, not lower. Higher makes the cross sectional area of the tunnel bigger, thereby lowering the pressure inside the tunnel (same number of molecules in a larger volume), which provides more downforce, and now I need to go put another layer of tape around the bridge of my glasses, so excuse me while I just go out this door…

      [spindly little nerd leg broken by an overtightened door closer while sand kicked in face by burly beach dude]

  7. billytheskink Says:

    If Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR championships are rarely considered tainted by Chad Knaus’ habitual cheating, then few would probably to think the same about Helio this year.

    Regardless of points penalties (or lack thereof), I think Hunter-Reay will give him a fight for it, at least. Marco too, if he can win a race or two. The Andretti team has got to like hitting Milwaukee, Iowa, and Pocono all in a row.
    Will be curious to see how competitive Honda is on the only 2 short ovals we visit.

  8. Carburetor Says:

    I do not think the title is Castroneves’ yet (remember, Penske has been in front heading into the last races before and lost the championship). Nevertheless, it seems like a cheap win (sort of desparation-like…).

    I too have noticed that the Ganassi team doesn’t seem to have its heart in it, save for Kimball–who is having a pretty good year considering. It sort of reminds me of when Rick Galles lost his zeal and faded away some years ago… I haven’t decided if they have just grown tired of the sport, or if they are biding time until next year and they return with possibly Chevy power. I mean, truth be told, all teams point to the Indy 500 each year and if the Honda cannot get competitive on that oval (and to a lesser extent, ovals in general), no one is going to want to race with it no matter how well it races twisties.

  9. In my humble opinion, ANY team in ANY racing series that wins a race, then fails post-race inspection, should have that win taken away. The team and driver of said team should lose all points (plus prize money) awarded for the win and be subject to further penalties as well.
    It’s somewhat Draconian to be sure; However, the rules are there for a reason and just because you can get away with bending/ breaking them doesn’t make it right.

  10. George, you don’t need to worry. According to an article I just read, Ron Ford is correct. This was actually a disadvantage to Helio.

    To confirm that, the Penske team put the car in a wind tunnel and tested it. The way it was set up, he had 3 pounds less downforce and one pound more drag than what it would have had if they had tightened the underwing braces properly, according to Cindric.

    So, rest easy, you don’t need to feel like they cheated.

  11. George, there isn’t a Univ. of Memphis fan poking out their chest for the Derrick Rose year and you know it. However, if you know one then identify them. If you won’t that means that you can’t.

    Go Tigers, Go!

  12. George, I wouldn’t worry. I don’t have the feeling that Helio I going to win this championship by a small amount. I think he will win it handedly.

  13. Jeff Loper Says:

    The championship (if he wins it) may be “somewhat” tainted, but as others have said, this mistake was actually to their disadvantage. We dont know the full details of the penalty or what’s in the rule book, but that could be why they allowed him to keep the win and the points. You think that if they were to have cheated they would have done it in a way that it was to their advantage. Not only that, but with this being the 4th win for Helio at Texas both Helio and the Team obviously have that track nailed down.

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