Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wednesday Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2015 Season

The penultimate Wednesday Wrap-Up will look at Team Penske's 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season. The team expanded to four cars with the addition of Simon Pagenaud. Will Power was coming off that elusive first championship and Hélio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya were coming off finishes in the top five in the championship. On paper, Team Penske was set to dominate the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Paper has never won an IndyCar race though.

Juan Pablo Montoya
The Colombian started the season with a victory at St. Petersburg and was on of the mountain for months. After beating his teammates in Florida, he got a top five at NOLA and held off Simon Pagenaud for third at Long Beach. A flat tire ruined his race at Barber but he bounced back with a third at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis 500 went all over the place for Juan Pablo Montoya. He was out of it after being hit by Simona de Silvestro. He was out of it after he ran over the air hose on a pit stop. Scott Dixon was dominating. Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Tony Kanaan were on his heels. It appeared Montoya wasn't going to be a factor. It took him half the race to get himself back in contention. It took him 165 laps to lead his first lap. Dixon faded and it became a Penske vs. Penske dual between Montoya and Will Power. Montoya held off Power on the final four laps to pick up his second career Indianapolis 500 victory.

The rest of Montoya's 2015 season would be consistent but not spectacular. Two tenth place finishes at Belle Isle that could have been much more. To be fair, Montoya wasn't the only one caught out in race one and Montoya ran out of fuel in race two a few corners to early. He was fortunate to get tenth in race two but it could have been much better. He finished fourth at Texas, finished a career-best seventh at Toronto with two fourths at Fontana and Milwaukee and overcame a pit lane speeding penalty at the mile oval.

The title was Montoya's to lose. He led by 54 points with five races to go. He completed all but one lap though the first dozen races and finished in the top ten in 11 races. It appeared the championship would not come down to the final race even though the finale would be double points. Then came Iowa. Then came a mechanical failure on lap ten. A last place finish and the door was kicked open. When it appear Montoya was going to rebound at Mid-Ohio, one caution caught him out. He was outside the top ten and fought for eleventh while Graham Rahal won and the closed the margin to nine points. At Pocono, it appeared the title was back in Montoya's lap. Rahal retired. Hélio Castroneves retired. Scott Dixon was behind him. He had a shot for the victory but settled for third.

Montoya entered the finale up 34 points on Rahal with four other drivers championship eligible. He had to run at the front and he did but he still found trouble. He ran into Power, putting them both at the back of the field. The title was slipping from his grasp. Luckily for Montoya, Josef Newgarden had a pit lane fire take him out. Sébastien Bourdais spun Graham Rahal and the Frenchman was penalized. Castroneves and Pagenaud faded. Stefano Coletti was in the top five but was penalized for having his radio fail. Scott Dixon was leading but Montoya was making up ground. Montoya needed to make up one more position. He needed to finish fifth. He ended the season with a sixth place finish and lost the title on a tiebreaker.

Will Power
The 2014 IndyCar champion started his title defense in style. Pole position for St. Petersburg with a second place finish after leading 75 laps and being jumped by Montoya during pit stops. A seventh at NOLA followed with a 20th at Long Beach after his car stalled when he was coming on the pit lane. Long Beach was already going to be an uphill battle after starting 18th but the stall put him a lap down, which he would never make up. At Barber, he ran into Takuma Sato exiting the pit lane and was penalized. While neither lost a lap, Sato finished 17th and Power came home in fourth.

Power started on pole position for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and dominated, leading 65 of 82 laps and held off a late charge from Graham Rahal. He started second in the Indianapolis 500 and was at the front all race. Once he got passed Scott Dixon, it became Power vs. Montoya and the Australian couldn't beat the Colombian to the line. He started on pole position for Belle Isle 1 but lost the lead at the after two laps to Takuma Sato. He would be at the front but would only lead to more laps and finished fourth. In race two, Power started second and led the first two laps but faded to the middle of the top ten. Right when it looked like Power would have a shot to get back to the front but he and Hélio Castroneves came together and they finished 18th and 19th respectively.

The third quarter of the season was trying for Power. Another pole position at Texas but he got the setup wrong and finished four laps down in 14th. At Toronto, Power led the first 30 laps from pole position but as drivers switched to slicks Power wasn't a factor and settle for fourth. He was caught up in an accident at Fontana with Takuma Sato with less than ten laps to go and at Milwaukee Ryan Briscoe got into the rear of Power and ended both their days.

He managed a tenth at Iowa but was bitten by the Sage Karam caution at Mid-Ohio and finished 14th. A fourth at Pocono kept Power alive for a second consecutive title and he started the season finale from pole position with an extra point in his pocket. However, even starting from pole position couldn't keep him from hitting his teammate. Both he and Montoya fell to the back but through attrition and others making bonehead mistakes, they worked their way back into the top ten. Power's championship died with that incident as the focus was getting Montoya back to the front. Power consolation prize was seventh in the race and third in the championship.

Hélio Castroneves
Another season of consistent results for Hélio Castroneves found him in championship contention once again. Fourth at St. Petersburg followed by two runner-up finishes at NOLA and Long Beach. At NOLA, he overcame contact with Francesco Dracone to finish on the podium and at Long Beach he started from pole position. At Barber, Castroneves started on pole position and was fourth late in the race but had to pit on the final lap for fuel and fell to 15th.

He made his 300th start at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and celebrated it by running into the back of Scott Dixon. No penalty was issued on the spot and Castroneves finished sixth while Dixon eked out tenth. He was penalized eight points for the incident but Mr. Penske negotiated it down to a three-point penalty. Castroneves hung in the top ten for pretty much all the Indianapolis 500 but couldn't keep up with Dixon, Power, Pagenaud and Kanaan. The Hondas of Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti found something late and Castroneves faded to seventh. A sixth in Belle Isle 1 was followed by, as you all know, the incident with Power in race two.

At Texas, he was able to keep pace with Dixon and Kanaan but couldn't beat them and settled for third. A slight change of strategy gave Castroneves a third at Toronto. He was at the front for the first half of Fontana but he spun off turn two and finished last. He would rebound from Fontana with a second place finish at Milwaukee despite starting last after failing to get in the qualifying line on time. He benefitted from the final caution as he was about to pit and if he did, he wasn't going to finish in top five.

Another pole position at Iowa but, like all the Penskes, he faded and finished 11th. He had a better day than 15th at Mid-Ohio but like Montoya and Power, he was caught out by the Karam caution. He started fourth at Pocono and was in the top ten all race until he had an accident on a restart. If you want to know what restart, go back to the one that was glorified with screenshots of cars six-to-seven wide on the front straightaway. They weren't all going to make it through when entering that wide. He still had a shot at the title but started 15th. He made his way into the top ten but faded and finished where he started and fifth in the championship.

Simon Pagenaud
Simon Pagenaud's debut season for Team Penske was less than spectacular. His average starting position was 5.1 He average finish was 10.6. A top five at St. Petersburg was followed by a retirement at NOLA after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay. He had a fourth at Long Beach and could only manage ninth at Barber after being caught out by the first caution of the race. A gearbox failure ended his race at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis after 57 laps.

He was competitive at the Indianapolis 500 but he faded and nearly ran over Justin Wilson. It could have been much worse but it could have been much better. He finished third in Belle Isle 1 after getting pit strategy right. The next three races would see Pagenaud finish outside the top ten. Fourteenth at Belle Isle 2 followed by 11th from the front row at Texas after getting his setup wrong and 11th at Toronto, once again from second on grid. At Fontana, he started on pole but wasn't a factor, leading only three laps and finishing ninth. He started 17th at Milwaukee and picked up another ninth. He faded at Iowa and benefitted from the infamous Sage Karam caution at Mid-Ohio to finish third.

Another front row start at Pocono saw Pagenaud lead 30 laps but fade to seventh in the end. At Sonoma, he started fourth and ended up in 16th. The Frenchman missed the top ten in the championship by 22 points and finished better than his starting position in four of sixteen races.

Is Team Penske a great team? It seems like a ridiculous question but consider that every IndyCar championship since 2006 (not including the final two seasons of Champ Car) has come down to the final race of the season and Penske has had at least one driver alive for the title in all but one of those season (2007 when it was Dario Franchitti vs. Scott Dixon vs. Tony Kanaan) and the team has only two titles to show for it and seven runner-up finishes in that time frame, including having the championship runner-up in the last six seasons.

Team Penske is a gagging, choking dog of a team. They find ways to lose the championship and it doesn't matter who it is. Ryan Briscoe, Will Power, Hélio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya have all choked while driving for this team. Why? I don't know. We hear about doing it the Penske way but the Penske way has led to nothing but disappointment on all but two occasions. There needs to be a culture change at Team Penske but Roger Penske won't change the culture and there is no one at that team willing to challenge The Captain.

The team has won three Indianapolis 500s, tied with Chip Ganassi Racing for the most since 2006. IndyCar is in a weird where one event is bigger than the championship but can winning the Indianapolis 500 be the only thing that matters? Yes it pays more than winning the championship. Yes it gives a team, driver and sponsor more recognition than winning the championship but winning the biggest race and then gagging in the championship can't be acceptable.

All four drivers gagged this past season. Realize that Castroneves has failed to score a top ten finish in the last four races of the last two seasons. Montoya could have taken a stranglehold on the championship at Pocono but pussyfooted, let Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden pass him on the final restart and settled for third and 16 fewer points than had he taken the victory. Power hasn't finished on the podium since the Indianapolis 500. Pagenaud did nothing but lose positions all season.  These should all be red flags for the team heading into 2016.

Despite Penske's habit of gagging, on paper, it appears 2016 will be Team Penske's year. Consider this: Next year is the 100th Indianapolis 500, it will be 25 years since Rick Mears' won his fourth Indianapolis 500 driving for Roger Penske and Hélio Castroneves will be making his sixth attempt at winning his fourth Indianapolis 500. On paper, it feels like fate is on Castroneves and Penske's side. Perhaps 2016 will also be Castroneves' year and he will finally get the championship that has eluded him for 18 seasons.