A Lackluster Summer At The Top

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Who remembers the hand-wringing that went on after the opening race at St. Petersburg? Team Penske swept the first four positions in qualifying and took four of the top five finishing positions in the race, including the top two spots on the podium. Third place went to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. For the two weeks that led up to the next race at New Orleans, all we heard was how boring this season would be with Team Penske winning everything, with their only threat coming from Ganassi.

My, how times have changed. Fourteen races into the sixteen race Verizon IndyCar Series season has seen a power outage at the top two teams this summer, with a refreshing surge from some unexpected places.

It should be noted that this season, I am not counting Andretti Autosport as one of the power teams. Although they’ve been considered part of the “Big Three” for several years, their performance this year has been abysmal and they have not factored into the championship chase all season. Currently, Marco Andretti is their only driver in the Top-Ten in points, sitting in the seventh spot.

For the most part, the turning point seems to have been the Indianapolis 500, which was the sixth race of the season . Through those six races, the two power teams of Penske and Ganassi had a combined thirteen podiums and four wins. Through the next eight races, with two races remaining – those same two teams accounted for nine podiums and only one win. Think about that – in the last eight races, only one has been won by a Penske or Ganassi car; and that was Scott Dixon winning at Mid-Ohio for Ganassi. Team Penske has a big goose egg in the win column since Juan Montoya won the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 24th.

Ganassi has been the more consistent of the two power teams. Through the Indianapolis 500, Chip Ganassi Racing posted four podiums and one win. In the eight races since the “500”, they’ve posted another four podiums and one win. Scott Dixon has provided both wins for Ganassi so far this season.

Team Penske is the culprit in the inconsistencies since May. Through the Indianapolis 500, Team Penske had nine podiums and three wins. Since then, they have posted five podiums and zero wins. Helio Castroneves, who is currently fourth in points, has three of those podiums. The other two come from Simon Pagenaud, who is way out of contention in tenth place.

Will Power has only three top-ten finishes in the last eight races and none of those are higher than fourth. His average finish since the Indianapolis 500 is thirteenth. The first six races that included the “500”, Power had three podiums and a win with an average finish of sixth. Power’s last four races, he has finished nineteenth, twenty-second, tenth and fourteenth respectively. That’s not the type of performance you’d expect from the reigning IndyCar champion.

Points leader Juan Montoya is currently in a free-fall among the power teams. Counting his win at the Indianapolis 500, Montoya had four podiums and two wins in the first six races. Since then, he has zero podiums. Beginning with the Detroit double-header, Montoya’s average finish is 9.25. That’s better than Power’s thirteenth, but it is in stark contrast to his average finish of 4.5 for the first six races. You would expect more from someone who has led the points wire-to-wire, thus far.

Perhaps the most consistent Penske driver has been Helio Castroneves, who posted two podiums before the Indianapolis 500 and three more afterwards. Throughout all fourteen races, Helio has an average finishing position of 7.3. Had he not had his crash at Fontana, he would be much more in the conversation regarding the championship. But racing is full of “what ifs”.

So the two power teams have struggled all summer. While they’ve been scratching their collective heads wondering what went wrong, teams like Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, KV Racing and CFH Racing have all stepped up and won. Most of those teams, along with Ganassi, have won twice since Penske last won at the Indianapolis 500.

The question is, what’s up at Team Penske? Is this just a string of bad luck, the summer doldrums or is there more to it than that? I have my theory and it’s one I threw out in a post last March. Four cars at Team Penske may be too much. Until this season, Team Penske had never run four full-time teams. Now that they’ve decided to take that on, they’ve gone about it with four very strong personalities (read: egos). I think that Roger Penske and Tim Cindric allowed their own egos to cloud their judgment. They saw that expanding to three cars last year brought the first IndyCar championship since 2006, so they should probably be able to add one more with no trouble, right? Wrong!

Although this is my opinion and not a fact, I think they have taken on way too much. Adding Pagenaud is building for the future when he and Power will be the core of the team. But right now, it’s the two old guys – Montoya and Helio – who are in the best position to win a second straight championship for The Captain, sitting at first and fourth in the championship. The two younger ones are fifth and tenth, currently.

Pagenaud has struggled all season, but being a new team with no former chemistry – that was to be expected. Montoya came out on fire, but has rapidly cooled off. While he may be free-falling, he is still currently the only points leader all season. The biggest mystery is Will Power, who has been in a tailspin all summer. Leaving Indianapolis, he was second in points and considered one of Montoya’s few threats. Since then, he has been sleepwalking through the summer and is a longshot for the championship, at best.

Good for the smaller teams that have taken advantage of this power void at the top. I still think that Scott Dixon will win the championship; but if Graham Rahal wins it, will the bigger story be that Rahal won it or that Montoya lost it?

While Chip Ganassi Racing has had a quiet season, by their standards; nothing short of a Montoya rebound and a Team Penske championship will keep this season from being a major disappointment at Team Penske – especially when you think back to their opening performance at St. Petersburg. While Graham Rahal is savoring what has been a magical season for him and his team, I’m thinking the season can’t end fast enough for Montoya and Team Penske. And that’s a very odd thing to say about a team that has led the championship every step of the way.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “A Lackluster Summer At The Top”

  1. To further your point George HCN missed his qualifying session at Milwaukee and had to start at the back. I was in the paddock and saw him run right past me like he was about to miss a plane but it was even worse than that. Whoops. I’ll bet chemistry within that team has much to do with the results. Isn’t it true JPM and Will Power are not the best of friends?

  2. Correction: Scott Dixon has won at TMS, not at Mid-Ohio, this year.

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    Penske has quite a history of losing championships that looked like they were a lock. Briscoe, Power, Castroneves all should have won titles. Graham will take the championship this year.

  4. After all the crying Honda people have done all year, Rahal would be the story. Honda’s shameful complaining would be the other.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    If it comes to pass that Montoya loses the title, I’m sure the point will be made that Penske and Juan choked. I certainly hope that the great Rahal comeback is the bigger story, as it should be the more interesting one of those two narratives.

    Penske’s mediocre performance certainly speaks to the parity in equipment and depth of driver talent that the series has now, but it is curious that Penske’s drivers and crews are getting so many little things wrong. If I could figure out why, maybe Roger would hire me…

  6. Texas was the turning point; Penske and Ganassi basically lapped the field. I was concerned going into Fontana but somehow the other three ovals were not dominated by Penske and Ganassi. This would have been a great year for KV or CFH to win a title if they had just been more consistent. I really hope Rahal defies the odds and wins the title. It would be a shock and most experts don’t expect it to happen, BUT statistically speaking Rahal is preforming the best right now. JPM is about to throw away a title. I really think he and Penske got too conservative too fast. They went into points racing mode around Belle Isle which has let Rahal and Dixon outpreform them. Penske is a dominant team but for whatever reason the Unification/DW-12 era has seen them win very few titles.

    I hope Josef Newgarden is watching the struggles of Simon Pagenaud and considers those lessons before joining Ganassi (or Penske/? Rahal?).

    I am a little surprised Penske and Ganassi have gotten worse as the year has gone by. I would have expected parity early and Penske/Ganassi lockdown later but we’ve had the reverse of all of that. My thought is that being official aero kit testers must have paid off early but around Belle Isle everyone else caught up.

    I’m cheering for Rahal and am shocked that any American fan could cheer for anyone else (except maybe Helio) in the top five. I really hope he wins the title. If not finishing second to Montoya would still be a great accomplishment. I just don’t want to see him slip and end up behind Dixon/Power as Curt Cavin seems to think will happen. That would be depressing.

  7. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Montoya is still in the driver’s seat quite literally and figuratively, so he will win. In fact, a podium at Pocono will protect his points, charging his chariot to the championship.

  8. I think that Rahal is on a roll and that they have figured out how to get the Honda package to work for them. Pocono, however, is going to tell a lot about that. With that, I think that Montoya is in a free fall, but he has enough points to pull this out. George, you are right, Andretti is not a player this year and I am wondering what is going on there.

  9. I am so hoping that Graham wins it all. He has had an incredible year so far and I am hoping he does well in Pocono. And I will be there!! . (Sorry, couldn’t help myself. This is my first non-California race).

    JPM could still pull off the championship, especially with double points at Sonoma (whose bright idea was that?). Not sure what to make of Andretti, though Marco has had some solid performances this year.

  10. I have to say the championship is currently being overshadowed by the news of losing one certain and possibly two additional ovals. So much for Indycar building on a pretty good season.

    • I agree Bob. It is really wearing to be a fan and have IndyCar consistently take one step forward and 2-3 back. I feel that Mark Miles should have done whatever was necessary to accomodate the Fontana owner/promoter. So, they might lose a few East Coast TV viewers, big deal. Getting folks in the seats should trump everything. My profound apologies for including the word trump in this message.

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