A Sign of Things to Come?

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There has been a lot to discuss off of the track since the NTT IndyCar Series raced at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6. In fact, the off-track topics have overshadowed what many considered to be a less-than-exciting race at Texas. But with five races in a two-week period coming up in July, it’s time to turn the focus on the main thing we follow this sport for – the racing.

One thing struck me coming out of Texas that I’m tempted to write off as just a bad day at the office. After all, is it really fair to judge a season off of the opening race, especially when the circumstances were as strange for this season’s opening race? But the fact that I’m even mentioning it tells you that the thought has entered my mind more than once since Texas.

What I’m pondering is with Roger Penske purposely distancing himself from his team to avoid any conflict of interest accusations, is it possible we might see a drop-off in performance and results?

It’s hard to look at Team Penske’s results from Texas and call it a bad day at the office. Josef Newgarden won the pole and finished third. Simon Pagenaud started third and finished second. Will Power started sixth, but finished thirteenth – mostly due to a botched pit stop. Most people would look at that and think Team Penske had a very solid weekend.

If you watched the race, you know differently.

While the Penske cars qualified well, their cars fell off throughout each stint. Newgarden and Pagenaud both had issues related to the tires, and neither of them seemed to be able to deal with the handling or the setup of the cars. They both benefited by Felix Rosenqvist crashing out late while running in second, allowing each to move up one spot in the final finishing order. Power was put out of contention with a bad pit stop, when one of the tire-changers had trouble with the air gun.

Newgarden was ecstatic to come home with a third-place finish. When you start on the pole and you’re elated to finish third, that tells you your car was a handful.

Was this an anomaly or was it a sign of things to come? With so much downtime leading up to only an hour and a half of practice in a one-day show, could anyone be expected to be fully on their game? Is Roger Penske’s presence on the pit stand that important to keep things running at peak efficiency? These are some of the questions that have been going through my head for the past four weeks.

For some time now, I’ve considered Tim Cindric to be Roger Penske’s secret weapon. He is president of Team Penske over all their racing operations in IndyCar, NASCAR and sports cars. In the two decades he has been there, the team hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, they’ve grown from a regular two-car team to running three and sometimes four full-time cars in a season.

Since joining Team Penske after coming from Bobby Rahal’s team, Team Penske has won eight Indianapolis 500s and five series championships. Four of those IndyCar championships have come in the past six seasons and three out of the past four years. The team has also claimed three Indianapolis 500 wins out of the past five years. As good as they have been over the past several decades, Team Penske is definitely on an upward trajectory.

But with Penske away from the team on Race Day and (supposedly) removing himself from the day-to-day operations and team strategy; is it possible that the team might miss a beat? If we are judging on a one-day show in Texas, the answer is “possibly”.

We know that at some point, The Captain will have to step away from the team, or Mother Nature may do it for him. At the age of eighty-three, you know we are probably talking just a few years – although Roger Penske, Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt all seem to be successful in fighting off Father Time, so far. Whenever that day eventually comes, I always assumed that Tim Cindric would continue to do what he’s been doing and nothing would change. Team Penske would continue to be where every driver hoped to get to at some point in their career.

I still think that way, but I need to see a better performance from the team than what we saw in Cindric’s debut as the man in charge, last month in Texas. While it was a decent start to the season, the entire execution of the three-car team seemed just a little un-Penske-like. It just makes me wonder if Penske’s presence on the pit stand makes just a little difference.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I keep going back to one Race Day at Barber Motorsports Park. The command to start engines had already been given and the field had already embarked onto the pace laps. While other teams were gathering themselves in the chaos that ensues as they are all lifting their starters and other equipment back over the wall, and getting settled into their positions in the pits – I happened to be right behind where Roger Penske was sitting atop the pit box.

With the green flag about to fly, Penske noticed that a tarp covering a couple of cases of bottled water had come undone and was flapping in the breeze. Just moments before his cars would be racing in anger, Penske directed two crewmen to get down and tuck the tarp under the bottles. The look they gave each other was priceless, but they both hopped to it and completed the task just before the drop of the green flag. What I took away from that was no matter how big the moment, Roger Penske never loses sight of the smallest detail. That approach to everything he touches is why he is where he is today. Without that type of presence in the pits, things might slip just a bit.

I am hopeful that my assessment of Tim Cindric is spot-on, and that Texas was the wrong race to be making any sort of critique on anyone’s ability But between this Saturday July 4 and Saturday July 18, we will have five more races by which to judge drivers and teams. If Josef Newgarden is thrilled to be just at the bottom step of the podium for any of those five races, we may be seeing a trend for what the new regime at Team Penske. I’m hoping that’s not the case.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “A Sign of Things to Come?”

  1. I wouldn’t put too much stock in what happened at Texas. dixon and Ganassi were the only ones on their game. Rosenqvist gifted the podium spots to the Penske drivers. I wonder more if Newgarden’s three extra points for third will be a factor at the end of the season

  2. All I’ll offer up is that at the 2018 Texas race that I attended, the Penske cars qualified 1-2-3, and preview articles about the race figured we were in for a Penske whitewash. Come race day, the Penskes blistered tires repeatedly and finished 2nd (Simon Pagenaud, but Alexander Rossi finished 0.3 seconds behind after being unable to find a way by in the single groove turns 1-2), 13th (Josef Newgarden, 1 lap down), and 18th (Will Power, crashed with Zachary Claman DeMelo in the trioval, an incident essentially 100% on Power). Oh, and Scott Dixon won. I think maybe Texas isn’t Penske’s strongest track, even though they have won there nine times. I wouldn’t draw a ton of conclusions about the “post-Roger era” based off of this small sample size.

    • billytheskink Says:

      A good observation. Penske also struggled in the three Texas races prior to 2018 when new cars/variations on the car have been introduced, it seems that they need a race or two to get the hang of a new car at Texas before they look Penske perfect… though even that is not 100% true at Texas.

      When Power won the messy 2017 Texas race, the team’s only Texas victory in the aerokit era, he benefitted greatly from the mid-race mandate of competition cautions to prevent tire blistering. Whose tires were first said to be blistering? They both drove Penskes…

      2003 – One of those few odd races where Castroneves piloted the new Dallara while de Ferran ran a G-Force. It worked at Indy, where de Ferran won and Helio ran second, but at Texas both drivers were non factors. Both qualified and finished in the back half of the field and neither led a lap. Tora Takagi finished 3rd in this race! Fun fact, winner Al Unser Jr. left the race 2nd in the points standings.

      2012 – The Briscoe-Helio-Power flotilla qualified 10-15-5 and finished 3-7-8. They led a combined 29 laps in the middle of the race before choosing the wrong pit strategy in a race where only a few teams figured out that you needed to get off your degraded tires the instant your fuel window opened up.

      2015 – Things actually started in promising fashion for Penske in the first aerokit era race at Texas, only to evaporate as the lights came on. The four car armada of Montoya-Helio-Power-Pagenaud qualified 5-3-1-2, prevented from locking out the top two rows only by a daring 2 lap hustle from 4th starter Carlos Munoz. The Penskes, led by Pag, proceeded to lead 82 of the first 102 laps… and 7 of the last 146 (mostly on pit sequence). The four Penskes finished 4-3-13-11 with Power and Pagenaud both multiple laps down. None pushed Dixon for the win late or was even able to prevent him from leading the most laps… things that looked rather important in hindsight at Sonoma that year.

  3. Randy Holbrook Says:

    I think your Penske team will be just fine George. You sound like my beloved old UGA coach talking about upcoming opponent Arkansas State having the the best long snapper and holder in the country. Team Penske ain’t no underdog. 🙂

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