It Was Tougher Than It Looked

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It wasn’t that long ago that everyone complained about the red cars winning everything in the Verizon IndyCar Series. To be precise, it was the 2009 season. Of course, they were referring to the two red cars of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and the day-glo red cars of Team Penske, which were in their last year of carrying the familiar Marlboro livery.

Keep in mind that Will Power was a part-timer for Penske and drove a yellow Penske Truck Rental car – it was still considered a red car because it was a Penske car. That season, all but one of the seventeen races was won by a Penske or Ganassi car. The lone exception was when Justin Wilson gave Dale Coyne his first-ever win at Watkins Glen.

While Penske and/or Ganassi have pretty much been the two teams to beat over the last decade – I don’t think there has ever been a season dominated by only two teams like 2009. For the record – Dario Franchitti won the championship that season for Ganassi , after Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe choked the championship away with a brain fade leaving the pits while leading late in the race at Motegi in the penultimate race of the season. It’s a shunt that probably haunts Briscoe to this very day.

Had Briscoe simply stayed on course and had a strong finish, he more than likely would have won the championship – giving Team Penske their second championship since moving over from CART for the full 2002 season.

When Marlboro Team Penske announced they were moving to the upstart Indy Racing League for 2002, it was assumed by everyone (myself included) that they would win every championship for the foreseeable future. They were the first “big team” to move full-time from CART to the fledgling series.

This was to be only the seventh season for the “other” series. Although they had shed some of the names like Racin Gardner and Dr. Jack Miller, drivers like Robby McGehee and Mark Dismore were still being promoted as their stars. No offense to those drivers who were decent, but they would probably not be considered stars in the current era.

Panther Racing had been considered the class of the field. Their driver, Sam Hornish, was the defending champion, but I don’t think anyone thought that the single-car team co-owned by John Barnes, Doug Boles and Jim Harbaugh among others stood a chance against the might of Team Penske. After all, Team Penske was coming off of two straight championships in CART, which most considered the far superior series. They had also dominated the previous year’s Indianapolis 500 with a one-two finish as a crossover team. The future looked dim for all of the IRL teams that had enjoyed competing against each other in a low-cost arena. With the full-time presence of Penske, they knew that was about to change.

But a funny thing happened when the green flag dropped to kick off the season. Hornish and Panther won the opening race at Homestead, serving notice that they had no intentions of rolling over for the far more established Penske organization. Helio Castroneves won the next race at Phoenix, but Hornish answered with another victory in the next race at Fontana.

As the season wore on, other drivers from even lesser teams were beating Team Penske. By season’s end, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran had each won two races for Team Penske. Races were also won by Jeff Ward, Scott Sharp, Airton Daré, Alex Barron, Tomas Scheckter and Filipe Giaffone. And Sam Hornish? He won a total of five races and his second consecutive championship.

Surely that was a fluke – a small local team beating the powerhouse team of Roger Penske. Surely Team Penske would flex its muscle and win the championship in 2003. Well, Penske didn’t lose to the smaller team at Panther. Instead, they lost to their arch-rival from CART – Target Chip Ganassi who had moved over from the more established series that season.

To the surprise of many, it took Roger Penske four seasons before he won his first championship in what was now branded the IndyCar Series. That occurred in 2006 at the hands of the first driver to beat them in the championship – Sam Hornish, who was lured away from Panther in 2004 when Gil de Ferran retired.

What was an even bigger surprise is that it took Team Penske another eight years before they won their second IndyCar championship, when Will Power won it in 2014. Last year, Simon Pagenaud won Penske’s second championship in three seasons – a pace that most expected when Team Penske switched allegiances fifteen seasons ago.

It’s not as if the Penske drivers have all been chopped liver. Most times, there was at least of, if not two Penske drivers in a position to win the championship going into the final race of most seasons. But fate had other plans as drivers from Andretti-Green Racing (later Andretti Autosport) or Chip Ganassi Racing took the championship eleven of the fourteen seasons after Panther won that last title, when Penske first came into the league in 2002. It’s safe to say that going up against the small teams of the Indy Racing League and what ultimately became the Verizon IndyCar Series, proved a lot tougher for Team Penske than anyone possibly thought.

With a stable of four teammates for 2017 that finished one through four in the final standings last season, it appears that Team Penske is poised to be on top for some time. But then again, we’ve thought that before.

George Phillips

Please Note – I have a holiday weekend coming up with President’s Day on Monday. I will use the time off to do a few projects planned around the house this weekend. Therefore, I will not have a post up here on Monday Feb 20; but will return here on Wednesday Feb 22. – GP

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2 Responses to “It Was Tougher Than It Looked”

  1. I knew that Penske was going to win championships and 500s, but I knew he was not going to have a cakewalk. Panther was rolling and they, too, knew how to win. Penske knew that and saw that their driver, Sam Hornish, was also the real deal and hired him for the #6 car. What if thought and what happened was that Penske was going to raise the bar and make the series more competitive. The thing I tell my son about Penske and what I admire the most is that he does the small things. Sweeping a broom in the shop is as important to the Captain as anything else. It is the “small things” that make you a winner.

  2. When you look at their championships since coming over in 2002, I can see how it could appear on paper that Penske has underachieved in that regard. I think however, they just ran into two buzz saws. The early AGR team with TK, Dario, and Wheldon was as talented a trio of drivers as I’ve ever seen on one team. Then Chip’s brilliant move to lure Dario back to Indycar turned into a match made in heaven for them. Team Penske is always at the the top of their game, but that was some stiff competition!

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