A Tainted Championship In The Making?
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.