Tuesday, February 16, 2016

2016 Verizon IndyCar Team-By-Team Preview: Team Penske

Three of the six drivers mathematically eligible to win the Astor Cup at the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale from Sonoma belonged to Team Penske. Instead of leaving with a second consecutive title, the team left with its tail between its legs after losing on tiebreaker. All four drivers from 2015 return for 2016 as the famous team looks to shake off another blown title.

2015 Team Penske Review:
Wins: 3 (St. Petersburg, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Indianapolis 500)
Poles: 11 (St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Barber, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Belle Isle 1, Texas, Toronto, Fontana, Iowa, Pocono, Sonoma)
Final Championship Positions: 2nd (Juan Pablo Montoya), 3rd (Will Power), 6th (Hélio Castroneves), 11th (Simon Pagenaud).

2016 Drivers:

Juan Pablo Montoya
The Colombian led every single day of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season except the last one and even then he had a share of the lead but the title went to Scott Dixon based on the New Zealander's three victories to Montoya's two victories. Entering Iowa, it appeared not only would Montoya win the championship but could possibly locked it up before Sonoma, even though the finale was worth double points. An accident nine laps into that race opened the door and the dominoes started to not fall in Montoya's favor. A closed pit-lane at Mid-Ohio cost him a top five and contact with his teammate Will Power put him behind the eight-ball in the finale and left him chasing instead of being the chased.

Numbers to Remember: 
1- Podium since his Indianapolis 500 victory. He finished third at Pocono.

294- Days between his last victory (Indianapolis) and the season opener St. Petersburg, which he won in 2015. Montoya's win at Indianapolis is also Team Penske's most recent IndyCar victory.

30- Montoya led 30 of 1,448 oval laps in 2015. That's 2.07%.

Despite all these years of Penske choking a championship away, the team always rebounds and rarely struggles at the start of the season. Montoya is 40 years old and doesn't turn 41 until two days after the 2016 season. He is a young 40 but could this be his final year in IndyCar? It's hard to see Montoya regressing significantly in 2016. He likely won't be able to repeat his near wire-to-wire championship lead but he can never be ruled out of a 500-mile race. A win or two and another bid for a top-five finish in the championship is on Montoya's horizon.

Will Power
The Australians championship defense in 2015 started off promising. A victory and two runner-up finishes saw Power trailing Montoya by only 25 points after the Indianapolis 500. However, once the calendar switched to June, Power found himself being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An accident in Belle Isle 2 with Hélio Castroneves, contact with Takuma Sato at Fontana and a nudge from Ryan Briscoe at Milwaukee left Power with an average finish of 15.2 in a five-race stretch. He scored a pair of fourths after ten races but he hasn't scored a podium since that fateful day in May.

Numbers to Remember: 
10- Starts since Power's last podium, matching his longest podium drought since joining Team Penske.

100- Career top tens.

9- Consecutive seasons with a victory.

Like I said with Montoya, I don't see Power regressing. I think 2016 will be another season with Power competing for the title into August and September. He only won once in 2015, the fewest victories for Power in a season since his abbreviated 2009 season when he was a substitute for Hélio Castroneves at St. Petersburg while he settled his tax evasion trail and was rewarded with a smattering of other races. However, last year was the first time since Power's rookie season in 2006 that he did not win on a street/temporary circuit. Power should score two-three victories in 2016 and be in the championship hunt until the final race of the season.

Hélio Castroneves
The Brazilian enters his 19th season in IndyCar and 17th with Roger Penske. Castroneves had a Castreoneves-esque season in 2015: No victories but five podiums, six top fives and nine top tens. It was also a Castroneves-esque season in another way. He failed to score a top ten in one of the final four races. The season before that, Castroneves failed to score a top ten in the final five races. With the three-time Indianapolis 500 looking to get his fourth, he is also running out of time for that elusive title and it appears he might not have what it takes to put together a collection of 16 finishes good enough to take the Astor Cup.

Numbers to Remember: 
199- Career top tens.

27- Starts since Castroneves' last victory. The most starts between victories for Castroneves is 29 from St. Petersburg 2007 until Sonoma 2008.

45- Career pole positions. He is four behind Bobby Unser for third all-time.

Despite Castroneves' career waning, I still think he will win the Indianapolis 500 this year because the stars have aligned for him to do. Can the stars align for him to get that elusive championship? I don't think so. In fact, I think Castroneves will finish in the "Tony Kanaan Zone" of the championship. Somewhere between seventh and 12th. He will have another Castroneves type season and get good results but he won't be sensational.

Simon Pagenaud
The Frenchman's first season with Team Penske went as while as a lead balloon. A bagel in the wins column, two podiums and seven finishes outside the top ten. Anytime it looked like it was going to be Pagenaud's day, he faded. When other Penske drivers faltered, Pagenaud wasn't able to carry the weight. He finished 11th in the championship, ending a streak of three consecutive top five championship finishes and a career worst for him when competing a full-season.

Numbers to Remember: 
5.2- Pagenaud's average starting position in 2015.

-5.375- Pagenaud lost on average 5.375 positions from his starting position in 2015.

17,794- The amount of days between the last IndyCar victory for car #22 and St. Petersburg. The last victory for the #22 was Wes Vandervoort on June 25, 1967 at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. It was the only victory of Vandervoort's IndyCar career.

I can't see Pagenaud going another season without a victory but it just didn't seem to click at any point in 2015. If Pagenaud had finished the season strong with a string of four or five consecutive top ten finishes then I might look at him as someone who will come into 2016 hot and potentially be a championship contender. I think he wins a race but finishes in the "Kanaan Zone" with Castroneves.

The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series seasons commences with Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13th. ABC's coverage of the race will begin at 12:30 p.m. ET.