Is A Penske Championship A Certainty?
This past Sunday at Milwaukee, Will Power took a giant step towards his first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series Championship. But this thing is far from over. The double-points race at the season finale at Fontana throws a whole new kink into things.
I am not a proponent of double-points being paid out for any race – even the Indianapolis 500. I always liked the fact that all races paid an equal amount of points, even though some races were bigger than others. That put races like Iowa and Barber on the same level with Indianapolis and Long Beach. Going into the final two races of the season, you get a sense that some teams may not put as much emphasis on the upcoming race at Sonoma as they might for Fontana the following week; mainly because Sonoma only pays half the points that Fontana does.
The theory why the series went with double-points at the five-hundred milers is that since there are so few ovals on the schedule (six), they had to come up with some way to reward those teams and drivers that performed better on the ovals. I still want there to be a 50-50 split between ovals and non-ovals, but that’s a subject for another day.
Getting back to Power – it doesn’t hurt his chances at all that he is the current defending champion at both of the remaining tracks on the schedule. With a thirty-nine point gap over his teammate, Helio Castroneves, you would have to say that the odds favor Power. But a Penske championship is starting to look very likely.
Mathematically speaking, there are six drivers that still have a shot at the title. But in all actuality, I think only three have a realistic shot – Power, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, who is ninety-two points behind Power. That could drop by one this weekend at Sonoma. If Pagenaud has a rough weekend and Power wins as he has done three of the past four years at Sonoma – it could come down to a battle of Penske drivers at Fontana.
It is still incredible to me that since Roger Penske moved his team from CART to IndyCar full-time in 2002; they have only won one championship – with Sam Hornish in 2006. In that same time period, Chip Ganassi’s team has won the championship six times, Michael Andretti’s four times and even John Barnes’s Panther Racing team won once since 2002.
I remember when Helio Castroneves and two-time defending CART Champion Gil de Ferran came over that year, the fear was that Roger Pesnke was going to mop the floor with inferior teams of the lowly IRL. That first year, Sam Hornish managed to squeak out one more title for John Barnes. The next year saw the arrival of Michael Andretti’s re-vamped version of Team Green move over from CART along with Target Chip Ganassi.
Having the wrong engine crippled Penske until the entire field was powered by Honda starting in 2006, when Hornish won the crown for The Captain. Then some bad luck and possible bad chemistry sidetracked things in 2007, when Dario Franchitti won it all.
By 2008, Hornish was gone and Ryan Briscoe got his full-time ride. The chemistry was improved, but it didn’t take long for rumors to start swirling that Briscoe wouldn’t make it through the season. But Briscoe silenced his critics with three wins after the Indianapolis 500. Briscoe finished fifth in points, while his teammate Helio finished second.
It was 2009 that Briscoe came of age. Helio Castroneves had won the Indianapolis 500 for a third time, but his season tanked after that as the weight of his tax evasion trial finally took its toll, even though it was over in April. Helio finished a distant fourth in points, but Briscoe was the front-runner for a majority of the season. But a brain-fade while leading at Motegi torpedoed his season. He ended up third behind the two Ganassi cars of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. You can bet that did not set well with The Captain.
By 2010, Will Power was on board full-time and Team Penske ran three cars for the full season for the first time since 1994. He had a spectacular start to the season, winning the first two races of the season. He won three more along the way, but a crash at the finale at Homestead ended any possibility of his bringing a championship trophy home to Roger Penske.
2011 saw Power win six races, but when the ill-fated finale was cancelled due to the death of Dan Wheldon – Dario Franchitti won the championship by default. The following year was the first year for the DW12. Again Power started off great, winning three races in a row before the Indianapolis 500. However, he never won for the remainder of the year. Two second-place finishes late in the season kept him in contention heading into Fontana, but an unforced error put him into the wall on Lap 66. Ryan Hunter-Reay hung on to win the championship that night.
Last season, Power’s winless streak continued through August and he was never considered in contention. But he finished strong, winning three of the last five races including the final two to salvage a fourth place finish. It was his teammate Helio Castroneves who teased everyone throughout the season before gearbox woes did him in at Houston, relegating him to a heartbreaking second-place finish for the season.
The only driver currently driving for Team Penske to win an IndyCar championship is Juan Montoya, and that was in 1999 driving for Chip Ganassi. Will Power and Helio Castroneves desperately want to win one. At thirty-three, Power is still in his prime and has time to win a few before hanging up his helmet. The same cannot be said for Helio, who will turn forty before next year’s Indianapolis 500. He has flirted with a championship many times over the years, but never closed the deal. He currently seems to be going through another late-season slump that may do him in again.
Things don’t seem stacked in Helio’s favor. Power is strong at both of the remaining tracks, but Helio is no slouch. Out of ten starts at Fontana, Castroneves has eight Top-Ten finishes; two of which were Top-Fives. In nine starts at Sonoma, Helio has a win, two second-place finishes and two Top-Fives. If Power has any type of a hiccup at either of the last two tracks, chances are good that Helio will be there to take advantage of the opportunity.
If you listened to Trackside last night, you heard them explaining that it’s possible that Montoya could still work his way into third – past Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud. That would make it a one-two-three Penske sweep of the championship. After so many years of championship futility, that would certainly be sweet redemption for The Captain.
Over the years, I’ve never hidden the fact that I am a fan of Roger Penske and his teams. I was there when he first showed up at IMS with Mark Donohue in 1969 and I’ve always admired the way he and his teams carried themselves. I’ve also been very open that I’ve always been a big fan of Helio Castroneves. Nothing against Will Power, but I’m pulling for Helio to win this championship.
Those that are not fans of Team Penske may not be inclined to watch the next two races, since it will mostly be a battle within one team. But anyone who chooses not to watch the next two races will be missing a heck of a battle.