A Predicted Resurgence for the 2021 Season

After mentioning replays on Peacock, I’ve had a couple of people ask me about how to access replays of the open test last week at IMS. We have Comcast Xfinity, and the Peacock app is already loaded into our cable box, so your device may be slightly different. Simply go to the Search button and start typing INDY. The practice sessions will immediately appear.

A rainy Saturday morning this past weekend provided the perfect opportunity to watch the replay of Friday’s practice sessions on Peacock. To Mrs. Oilpressure’s dismay, I started watching the beginning of practice about 7:30 Saturday morning. In all honesty, I figured I would watch an hour or so, then have it on throughout the day, to check out as we walked through the den as we did inside weekend chores.

Instead, I was a lazy slug on Saturday. I did no chores, and watched Friday’s entire test from beginning to end – lazily dosing off a couple of times. While I thought it was a perfect way to spend a rainy Saturday, Susan did not. She grumbled as I finally handed the remote to her at about 4:00 Saturday afternoon.

Several things caught my eyes and ears throughout the more than eight hours of commercial-free practice, some of which I will probably write about over the next few weeks as we go through the start of the season, then hit the buildup in the Month of May. One of them, I will write about today.

Early in the broadcast, Kevin Lee and Townsend Bell were discussing what a tough time Team Penske had in last year’s Indianapolis 500. They were placing a lot of the blame on the Chevy engine, which definitely had a tough time at IMS last August. Only one Chevy qualified in the Top-Ten (Rinus VeeKay, who qualified fourth) and only two Chevys finished in the Top-Ten (Josef Newgarden in fifth and Pato O’Ward sixth).

While Chevy’s woes at Indianapolis had a lot to do with a lackluster performance by Team Penske, I think it runs a little deeper.

If you look at the numbers, you would say that Team Penske had a good year. They had a total of seven wins in a fourteen-race season. Newgarden won four races and was in the title fight going into the final race of the season at St. Petersburg. He won that race, but Scott Dixon had to have a poor outing to lose the championship. He finished third. Will Power won two races and Simon Pagenaud visited victory lane once. A team winning half the races in a season with all of their drivers taking the checkered flag, would usually be ecstatic over a season like that – but not Team Penske.

To me, things felt a little off at Team Penske for most of the 2020 season. They didn’t win their first race until more than a third of the way through the season. Even when they did win, it was seldom a team effort. If Newgarden was having a good day, many times his other teammates were not. In those first few races at Texas, the IMS road course and Road America – Team Penske was making a lot of un-Penske-like mistakes, and were putting up very mediocre numbers.

While some pointed the finger at Chevy, others said it was because they had not figured out the aero screen. I proposed here that it was because Roger Penske was no longer on any of the pit boxes, since he was now the owner of the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When I suggested that the lack of The Captain’s presence in the pits brought the team to the level of the others, most disagreed with me. It was suggested that I was taking a cheap shot at Tim Cindric and his leadership abilities.

That could not be any further from the truth. First of all, I’ve been a big fan of Cindric ever since he came over to Marlboro Team Penske from Team Rahal following the 1999 season. I was immediately impressed how the young leader embraced his position. Apparently so was Roger Penske, who promoted him to president of Penske Racing (including all racing series Penske was involved in) in 2006.

I’ve also been impressed with the moves he has made within the team. It seems every time he has restructured the team – even making tough decisions – it has worked. He has also made some shrewd calls on the fly as a race strategist, emulating some of the innovative strategic calls Penske himself has made over the years.

So don’t think for a moment that I think that Cindric is an ineffective leader. He’s not.

I do think that losing Roger Penske to an official role from the series has taken the edge off of the team. Few people in sports, or even in business, have the commanding presence of Roger Penske. He demands excellence from the people that work for him – from Tim Cindric to the guy that polishes the wheels. While Penske demands excellence, he also rewards that excellence with loyalty. Many of his staff have worked for him for decades, and few complain about the working conditions.

Roger Penske always took a very hands-on approach with his racing teams. While racing is a hobby for him, he expects performance at every race. His attention to every detail is unmatched almost anywhere. That’s not a knock on Cindric, hardly anyone watched every detail like Roger Penske. Therefore, it is only natural that a few minute details might go overlooked in Penske’s first season away from behind the pit wall on race weekends, even though I’m sure that Penske is still very involved in race preparations during the week.

This year presents a new challenge. The IndyCar team is expanding from three fulltime drivers to four, with the addition of rookie Scott McLaughlin. While everyone proclaims McLaughlin as the next great thing, he is still a rookie and it is still an extra car.

Contrary to those who thought I was taking a shot at Cindric last year, he is the reason I think you will see a resurgence at Team Penske in 2021, if a team that won half of last year’s races really needs a resurgence. Cindric has had since last October to start analyzing what went wrong last year. If his history is any indication, he has figured out how to fix it.

To the chagrin of many, I predict a dominant season by Team Penske in 2021. I think Newgarden will win his third championship, and I put him on a very short list of those to contend for the Indianapolis 500 in just a few weeks. I also think Power and Pagenaud will win races and even McLaughlin might squeak one out.

When the checkered flag flew on Friday, Chevy had six cars in the Top-Ten. The Indianapolis 500 isn’t won in April, but it looks like engine performance may be more on equal footing this year. Team Penske has also had all winter figuring out the aero screen. Assuming that gets done and Cindric has done his offseason homework like I think he has, look for Team Penske to rebound in 2021. They will start that rebound this Saturday, when the IndyCar teams turn their first official laps of practice to open the season this Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park. It’s about time.

George Philips

3 Responses to “A Predicted Resurgence for the 2021 Season”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    I could not agree more with your assessment of team penske.

  2. Oliver W Says:

    While I agree with much that you say I hope you are wrong!

    I would like to see Coyne, Foyt, etc win races and a new team win the Championship. I feel it would help attract sponsors to the lesser teams and overall show what an amazingly competitive series INDYCAR is.
    If Penske pull it off however all credit to Cindric et all.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Penske’s cars win or changes get made. I’m excited to see McLaughlin’s progression, and to see if Newgarden can break through at Indy… if Chevy was fast at Indy last year he might have.

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