How Will Team Penske Look in 12 Months?

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We know what the driver lineup for Team Penske looks like heading into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. Rookie Scott McLaughlin will pilot the No. 3 entry for The Captain; while Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud will be in their customary respective car numbers 2, 12 and 22. That lineup is set. But what about the lineup for 2022? I’m willing to bet that things will look a little different twelve months from now at Team Penske.

Most fans and media seem to be ready to package up the 2021 IndyCar title as well as the 2021 Indianapolis 500 and hand it to McLaughlin. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a love-fest for an incoming driver since Nigel Mansell came to CART as the defending Formula One World Champion in 1993.

McLaughlin has made one start – at last year’s season finale at St. Petersburg. As I recall, he did actually lead a practice session; but when it counted, he started twenty-first and finished twenty-second. That still didn’t stop a lot of fans from frothing at the mouth over McLaughlin and gushing about how well he’s going to do in IndyCar. It may end up being true, but until he gets a few races under his belt – let’s pump the brakes a little bit.

The rookie from New Zealand is going to have an awful lot of pressure on him from fans with very high expectations. Mansell came to CART and won his first race and the championship in his first season; and came within one bad restart of winning the 1993 Indianapolis 500 as a thirty-nine year-old rookie. I’m not sure McLaughlin can match that resume in his first IndyCar season.

That being said, I do think McLaughlin is going to have a solid rookie campaign. I also think he would be the early favorite to win the IndyCar Rookie of the Year, as well as the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. So after all of that, I’m pretty confident that Scott McLaughlin will return to Team Penske for a second season in 2022.

I think the same can be said for Josef Newgarden. Since joining Team Penske for the 2017 season, all the Nashville native has done is win the IndyCar title twice (2017, 2019) and he was the only driver to threaten Scott Dixon in 2020. Although Newgarden has had limited success in the Indianapolis 500, he has posted two Top-Five finishes in his last two tries. I think Newgarden will be drinking milk at Indianapolis sooner than later.

It’s the other two drivers I have questions about. Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have both won championships for Penske as well as the Indianapolis 500. But they are both getting a little long in the tooth in an industry that asks, what have you done lately? You sensed both were on a short leash when they each won the Indianapolis 500 – Power in 2018 and Pagenaud in 2019. Both wins bought them additional time with The Captain.

But you get a sense that they have both used up that capital and both need to produce in 2021, in order to come back in 2022.

Will Power turns forty on March 1. He has never finished out of the Top-Five in Points since he became a full-time driver for Team Penske beginning in 2010. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that he finished either second or third in points each season early in his Penske career, besides when he won the championship in 2014. The bad news is that he finished fifth three of the past four seasons. That trend is not going in the right direction. For the last two seasons, it has taken a late season flurry of wins and podiums to climb up and salvage fifth.

Simon Pagenaud finds himself in the same boat. After a forgettable first season at Team Penske that saw him go winless in 2015 and finish eleventh in points, Pagenaud answered his critics and won the 2016 IndyCar championship. He followed that up with placing second in points in 2017, but had a dismal season in 2018, going winless and finishing sixth. Pagenaud had an unremarkable start to his 2019 season and there were whispers heading into May that he was driving for his job. He responded by sweeping the Month of May – winning the IndyCar Grand Prix, the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and then the Indianapolis 500 itself. The general consensus was that he saved his job through the 2020 season.

2020 started well enough for Pagenaud. He finished second at the delayed opener at Texas, and third at the IndyCar Grand Prix, but he had a mediocre performance in the double-header at Road America. He followed that with a stellar double-header weekend at Iowa. He started Race One from the very back due to his car not firing for his qualifying run. He moved through the field to take the win, and ended up fourth in Race Two. But that was the highlight for Pagenaud. The rest of the season for the thirty-six year-old Frenchmen was very inconsistent. Most of his finishes were sixteenth or worse, with a tenth and two sixth-place finishes. His 2020 performance was good for only eighth in points for the season.

I don’t think Roger Penske or Tim Cindric give their drivers ultimatums. I think they just decide when they are done as a fulltime driver. The last driver that Penske released outright in their prime was Ryan Briscoe after the 2011 season. Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya both won the Indianapolis 500 for Penske, but they reached a point in age where their services were no longer needed. They were both exiled to Penske’s sports car team, but Helio was allowed an annual appearance for three years in the Indianapolis 500. This year, both Montoya and Castroneves will be driving for teams other than Team Penske in the Indianapolis 500.

But there is no sports car team for Team Penske anymore. There is no pasture to send their aging drivers off to. I don’t see either Power or Pagenaud deciding to retire at the end of this season, but I’m wondering if that decision will be made for them – at least as far as their Penske career goes.

I think one, if not both, of them will not be driving a Penske car next season. I don’t think Penske likes running four full-time cars, and I can see a scenario where Team Penske cuts back to three cars with Newgarden, McLaughlin and a much younger driver that is a proven winner. Who might that be that can be quickly molded into Penske material? I don’t know. I haven’t thought it through to that point. But I’ll promise you that Roger Penske and Tim Cindric have their eyes on several young drivers.

At last year’s Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske fielded a very old team with an average age of 38.75 – maybe the oldest since 1989, when he fielded Rick Mears, Al Unser and Danny Sullivan, when the average age of their three drivers was 42. Josef Newgarden just turned thirty last month, and Scott McLaughlin will be a twenty-seven year-old rookie – not exactly the same age as Rinus VeeKay was last year.

All sports have teams that go through youth movements. Before they know it, their entire team has aged and become old before their very eyes and they are forced to start over. The smart teams never let their players get too old. They trade or cut them before that happens.

Team Penske is one of the smart teams in IndyCar. While they are usually very loyal to their personnel, their drivers usually have a shelf life. Rick Mears retired a little early from Team Penske, and he was rewarded by being able to still be working there today. Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya were given less painful options. They were able to ease into retirement, even though they really weren’t ready to go.

With that option no longer there, I’m afraid that Will Power and/or Simon Pagenaud may be cut loose from Team Penske at the end of this season if they don’t have a banner year – and a banner year is not defined by winning a race. It is defined by winning multiple races, possibly including the Indianapolis 500, and competing for the championship going into the final weekend. If either of them fall short of that, their seat or seats may go to a younger driver with loads of potential, to learn from McLaughlin and Newgarden on a three-car team the following season.

Some will think I’m crazy, and I may be. But it’s been a while since a youth movement has been needed at Team Penske. Now may be the time. If I’m Will Power or Simon Pagenaud, I’m lining up a Plan B for 2022.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “How Will Team Penske Look in 12 Months?”

  1. Bob Zelinski Says:

    While I agree with you that Penske doesn’t like to run 4 cars, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it continue as long as the sponsorship is there. I think now that he owns the series, he’s willing to do what’s best for Indycar. And if that’s keeping 4 cars then I think he will. That being said, I still don’t think both of these drivers will return next year, probably just one.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Pagenaud seems the most likely guy out as he is the least consistent of the bunch, though I could see Power having a season from hell with bad luck and over-aggression shuffling him way back in the standings.

    McLaughlin is not coming to Penske with the kind of experience that helped Newgarden outperform his teammates from day 1, but if he is quick and keeps his car off the walls, I could see him finishing ahead of Pag or Power. I still think it is more likely he winds up 4th of the 4, though. Still, it will be exciting to see what someone new can do in championship-caliber equipment.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Chevrolet has received a considerable amount of advertising mileage with the number of Poles won by Will.

    I imagine that factor would be a consideration in the longevity equation.

  4. Excellent article.
    I think it depends somewhat on McLaughlin’s season. If it’s a disaster then only one will go if either but if he is brilliant then I see Newgarden and McLaughlin being joined by one or two new drivers. That is also influential as which new guys would they go for.
    What I would like to see is Askew being a chance but I know I am being naive.

  5. I think if Newgarden or McLaughlin win the “500” this year I could see the other two being let go. If they don’t, I believe Roger will keep them, or at least one of them. I think Penske likes having one proven “500” winner in the race. Up until Power won in ’18, and then Simon in ’19, Helio was that guy Roger could count on. When Helio went through those two seasons or whatever it was, without a win, Penske may have kept him around because he still gave him the best chance of winning at Indianapolis. Helio nearly proved it again in 2017. Now Power and Simon are his proven “500” winners…..until Josef wins it. Not trying to marginalize the championship, but to Roger Penske I think winning the Indianapolis 500 is everything.

  6. Great article. I myself think Pagenaud will be gone. Throughout Powers season he usually is consistently quick in qualifying and picking up poles. That notoriety and advertising is huge for the Chevy banner. Especially since NASCAR won’t have qualifying this season. I don’t know if it means much but the extra advertising might be enough for Chevy to be happy with his performance. However, he needs to calm down and hone the race craft. He’s has way too many dumb mistakes and pushes too hard which feels like he’s desperate. It’s tough when your Teammate Newgarden is consistently a top 3 car. You need to pick up the pace. Ultimately you’ve seen more positives or mentions of Power compared to Pagenaud all year. I think the only thing that could swing in Pagenauds favor is if he can win a few races and finish top 5 for most of the season. It’s the breaking point for both drivers. Any advantage or achievement will be huge compared to each other.

  7. Pagenaud to ECR, calling it now.

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