Finally Living Up To Expectations

Last week, Josef Newgarden confirmed what most of us strongly suspected – that he will be carrying the No.1 on his car for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. The No.1 traditionally symbolizes the reigning champion from the previous season. There has been a recent caveat to that rule – that is, if you’re the reigning champion and your team isn’t Chip Ganassi Racing.

When Scott Dixon won the championship in 2003, he carried the No.1 the following year and had a disastrous season. Although Ganassi has won the championship six times since then, they’ve never carried the No.1 since, blaming it on the bad luck it brought to Dixon in 2004. I would suggest it had a lot more to do with the lifeless Toyota engine and the sluggish Panoz chassis than the number Dixon carried.

But I’m not writing about numbers, at least not numbers that the car carries. No, today I’m talking about championships, expectations and how long it has taken for certain expectations to be realized.

Do you remember back near the end of the 2001 season? CART and the IRL were in full battle-mode against each other. For the second year in a row, the power-teams from CART showed up in May and dominated the Indianapolis 500. In 2000, Chip Ganassi Racing came over from CART to run the “500”. Juan Montoya led 167 laps on his way to a dominating win.

The following year, Team Penske could not resist the temptation to return to the race that they had already won ten times, but had not raced in since 1994 – coincidentally, the last year they won it. Team Penske swept the top two spots of the 2001 Indianapolis 500, with Helio Castroneves winning as a rookie and Gil de Ferran finishing second.

What was even more demoralizing for the IRL faithful was that CART teams swept the top-six spots. Michael Andretti finished third for Team Green, while Ganassi drivers Jimmy Vasser, Bruno Junqueira and Tony Stewart finished fourth through sixth respectively.

Roger Penske had tasted victory once more at Indianapolis and that was all it took. A few months later, he announced that his team would be leaving CART and would run the IRL season full-time in 2002.

Do you remember all the hand-wringing that came from the IRL side and the jokes that came from the CART side? Both sides predicted that Team Penske would win practically every race and would dominate the championships each year. CART teams joked about it, while the IRL teams feared it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2002 IRL championship. Panther Racing’s Sam Hornish dominated the season-opening race at Homestead and set the tone early that Team Penske was going to have to work hard to earn that championship. Neither Panther nor the other IRL teams would be intimidated by the team that had just won the last two championships in what was still considered the superior series. Hornish won five of the fifteen races that season on his way to his second consecutive IRL championship. Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran won two races each that season, although one of Helio’s two wins was his second consecutive Indianapolis 500.

For 2003, the competition bar was raised dramatically in what was known by then as the IndyCar Series. Chip Ganassi racing made the jump from CART to the new series, while Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree bought Team Green from Kim’s brother Barry Green and moved it from CART to IndyCar under the new name Andretti-Green Racing (AGR). Bobby Rahal ran a full-time car in the fledgling series also. Again, the heavy favorite in Team Penske came up short in the championship, although they won their third consecutive Indianapolis 500 with de Ferran taking the honors.

Scott Dixon won the 2003 championship for Ganassi, while both Team Penske drivers were second and third in points. AGR driver Tony Kanaan came in fourth. You had to go back to fifth in the championship standings to find the highest ranked old IRL driver – Hornish.

In the meantime, back injuries from an earlier crash that season hastened the retirement of Gil de Ferran. It was no secret that Roger Penske coveted Sam Hornish. Seeing the way in which Hornish won two of the first three IRL races in 2002 in beating his own drivers, made Hornish awfully attractive to The Captain. Losing that first championship to Hornish made him look even more appealing. Beginning in 2004, Sam Hornish would be a Penske driver. Surely that would cement what had now become an elusive IndyCar championship for Team Penske. It didn’t.

The 2004 and 2005 seasons were dream seasons for Honda. Team Penske and Ganassi both had Toyota engines, which had suddenly become woefully underpowered. AGR, Aguri-Fernández and Rahal-Letterman were the main three Honda teams. After Hornish opened his tenure at Team Penske with a win at Homestead, Honda-powered cars won the next fourteen races as Tony Kanaan won the championship. Helio Castroneves broke the streak at the season-finale giving Toyota and Team Penske only their second win in sixteen races. Castroneves finished fourth in points, while Hornish finished seventh.

It was pretty much the same for 2005. AGR and Honda won their second consecutive championship and AGR’s first Indianapolis 500 as Dan Wheldon swept both. Andretti-Green, and not Team Penske, was the force to be reckoned with. Dan Wheldon won six races, while Hornish won two and Castroneves one. Hornish would finish third in points while Helio fell to sixth. Although everyone feared and predicted that the IRL would be dominated by Penske, after four years they were still seeking their first championship after winning the championship the last two years they were in CART. This was certainly a head-scratcher.

But fate smiled on The Captain for 2006. Chevy and Toyota both left the series, leaving Honda as the sole engine provider for the series. Hornish won the Indianapolis 500 that season and the IndyCar championship. Now if you ask any driver which they would rather win – the Indianapolis 500 or the IndyCar championship – the answer will always be the Indianapolis 500. I’m sure it’s the same for Roger Penske. But at the same time, I’m sure Penske was wondering when that championship would come.

Oddly enough, it was eight more seasons before Team Penske would win their second IndyCar Series championship, when Will Power won it in 2014. After Scott Dixon won his fourth in 2015; Penske drivers Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden won the 2016 and 2017 championships respectively. That gives Team Penske three championships in the past four seasons.

Team Penske is finally fulfilling the expectations that everyone had for them more than fifteen years ago when they first announced their move to the IRL prior to the 2002 season. Had you told me then that it would take five seasons for Team Penske to win their first IndyCar championship and after fourteen seasons they would still be sitting on two – I would’ve thought you to be insane.

After sixteen full IRL/IndyCar seasons, Team Penske has now won the championship a total of four times – 2006, 2014, 2016 & 2017. In that same stretch, Michael Andretti’s team has won it four times, while Chip Ganassi’s team has won it seven times. It would seem that Team Penske is finally catching up with their rivals. Tell me again how Roger Penske is ruining IndyCar racing. I’d say they are just now finally living up to their potential.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Finally Living Up To Expectations”

  1. Paul Firzgerald Says:

    Let’s see what they do this year. Because of the aero kits they had an advantage on virtually every track but Indy and Pocono. They won’t have that advantage this coming season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them back where they were before the aero kits. Their main competitors are almost all Honda engines. They will be level this year. Let’s see if Penske is still the best or is back with the pack.

    About 2002, the records books say that Helio won that years Indy 500 but most knowledgeable people will tell you that Paul Tracey actually won and only the politics of the IRL-CART wars was why Paul was denied the victory he deserved. Also the series was almost all ovals then and that’s why Hornish, who was a great oval driver but weak on road courses, won the championship.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    That Penske didn’t obliterate the IRL fields when they first moved over was surprising, but not nearly as surprising as the team’s swoon from 95-99. In both cases, uncompetitive equipment played a major role, and it was amazing to see Penske pick and/or stick with the wrong manufacturers year in and year out.

    I remember in early 1999 when they replaced their own car with a Lola chassis for some of the races. While I’m sure there is more to the story as to why they did that, it baffled me at the time, it seemed like a white flag (not a racing white flag…). The only other teams running Lolas in 1999 were Payton-Coyne and Hogan, a perennial backmarker and a team that shut down at the end of the year. The year before, only Davis Racing had run a Lola, and they shut down at year’s end as well.

  3. Today I finished my hot chocolate before I finished reading George’s well-researched blog of 18 paragraphs. I’m sensing a trend here. George: Are you auditioning for that Davidson gig? Getting paid by the word now? You lost your real job? Giving your new carpal tunnell gloves a workout? For any new readers here who may not be used to my warped sense of humor, of course I am kidding. I greatly appreciate the time that George puts into these thrice weekly posts. Keep on bloggin’ dude!

    • Oh yeah, as to the subject. I try to live my life without expectations for myself or others, so I had none for Penske or anyone else who moved back. I might make an exception if someone could bring some coin to Coyne.

  4. Great trip down memory lane here George. Well done. What really stuck out for me is that Gil de Ferran has been retired for 14 years now. Jeez…I guess time does seem to move faster the older we get!

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