A new season is upon us and it is time to look at what the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series grid will look like come St. Petersburg on March 12th. Team Penske dominated the 2016 season and swept the top three of the championship with a first-time champion crowned. All three of those drivers return while Penske has picked up the driver that finished fourth in the championship last year.
2016 Team Penske Review:
Wins: 10 (St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Barber, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Belle Isle 2, Road America, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Sonoma)
Poles: 11 (St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Long Beach, Barber, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Belle Isle 1, Belle Isle 2, Road America, Iowa, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma)
Final Championship Positions: 1st (Simon Pagenaud), 2nd (Will Power), 3rd (Hélio Castroneves), 8th (Juan Pablo Montoya).
Simon Pagenaud - #1 Hewlett Packard Enterprise/PPG/Menards/DeVilbiss Chevrolet
After finishing as the bottom of four Penske drivers in 2015 and outside the top ten in the championship, Pagenaud rebounded to be the best driver in 2016. He took the lead of the championship after the second race at Phoenix and then won three consecutive races before taking a hefty lead into the month of May. While not being flashy, Pagenaud was consistent over the summer and held control of the champion with a victory at Mid-Ohio. He finished the season strong as his teammate Will Power made one final charge and Pagenaud capped over his championship season with a victory in the finale at Sonoma.
Numbers to Remember:
9: Career victories.
0: Oval victories.
11: Record for most victories before first oval victory (Will Power).
Nobody expects Pagenaud to fall back down to earth. Will he finish within the top two in the first five races? Probably not. Will he lead the championship after all but one round? Probably not. Pagenaud is going to be a championship contender, you can argue all the Penske drivers will be championship contenders and he will probably win three or four races. I think he could win an oval race. Not that is a big deal but that is still something for Pagenaud to shoot for.
Josef Newgarden - #2 Team Penske Chevrolet
In his fifth season, Newgarden once again had another career year. Despite mechanical issues in the season opener, Newgarden ran toward the front at the start of the season and was a challenger at the Indianapolis 500 only to finish third in the finish flurry of pit stops after starting second on the grid. He suffered a broken collarbone and fractured wrist at Texas but didn't miss a race and finished eighth in the race at Road America and not only won at Iowa but thrashed the field leading 282 of 300 laps. Outside of a horrendous Toronto race, where a Penske driver was the reason for his troubled race, Newgarden was constantly in the top ten and finished fourth in the championship.
Numbers to Remember:
16: Drivers have joined Team Penske since Rick Mears retired.
60.588: Average amount of IndyCar starts for those drivers before their first Penske start.
8: Of those 16 drivers won a race with Penske.
7.125: Average amount of starts it took for those eight drivers to get their first victory with Penske.
19: Most starts with Penske (of those eight drivers) until getting his first victory with Penske (Pagenaud).
12.5: Average Penske victories of the eight drivers.
The astonishing thing to me is Newgarden has improved on his championship position every year he has been in IndyCar. From 22nd to 14th to 13th to seventh to fourth and now he heads to the only team that beat him last year. Can he make another stride forward? Can he make up another three positions and win the championship in his debut season with Penske? Pagenaud struggled his first year at Penske but I think Newgarden will do better than that and it will help that he will have Tim Cindric as his strategist. He needs to improve on road/street circuits. He led 313 laps in 2016 and zero of those laps were on road/street circuits. I expect a win or two and Newgarden somewhere between third and seventh in the championship.
Hélio Castroneves - #3 Hitachi/Shell-Pennzoil/AAA/Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet
Despite not winning a race for the second consecutive season, Castroneves finished in the top five of the championship for the fifth consecutive season and eight of the last nine seasons. He had good chances at victories at Phoenix and Long Beach, both races where he started from pole position but a flat tire and poor pit strategy cost him. He scored a top five finish in altering races from the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to Mid-Ohio and ended the season with three consecutive top ten finishes, the first time he has done that since 2010.
Numbers to Remember:
43: Starts since his most recent victory, the longest drought of Castroneves' career since he won his first career victory in his 46th career start.
7: Runner-up finishes since his most recent victory. Castroneves once had seven runner-up finishes between his victories at Indianapolis in 2002 and Gateway 2003.
8: Runner-up finishes between Castroneves' victories at St. Petersburg in 2007 and Sonoma 2008.
Castroneves is always strong but for the last few seasons he hasn't had the muscle to take control of a race and take a victory when it lies before him. With 2017 being his 20th season in IndyCar and a growing younger generation of drivers on the grid, I am not sure Castroneves can chase down that elusive championship. A race victory isn't out of the question but it won't come easy. I think Castroneves takes a step back and ends up on the same path Juan Pablo Montoya was on in 2016: Back half of the top ten and out of a full-time IndyCar seat when 2017 comes to an end.
Will Power - #12 Verizon Wireless Chevrolet
Power won the first pole position of the 2016 season but missed after suffering from concussion-like symptoms and an inner-ear problem. He returned with three consecutive top ten finishes and he was the best Penske car in the Indianapolis 500 where he started sixth and finished tenth. Power bloomed in the summer. Four victories in six races and finished second in the other two races and he found himself back in the title fight. However, an accident at Watkins Glen and a mechanical issue at Sonoma forced him to settle for second in the championship to Pagenaud.
Numbers to Remember:
5: Power could become the fifth driver to win a race in at least 11 consecutive seasons.
20: Power finished 20th in the final two races of the 2016 season.
64: Starts since Power last finished outside the top fifteen in three consecutive races.
Power has finished in the top four of the championship the last seven years. There is no reason to see that changing. He is going to be fighting for the title. He is going to win three to five races. Power is as consistent as they get in IndyCar.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya entered 2016 coming off losing the championship on tiebreaker the year before. He rebounded immediately with a victory at St. Petersburg and entered the Indianapolis 500 third in the championship but a spin in the race meant he was the first retirement a year after winning the famed race for a second time. The summer saw Montoya have a stretch of hard luck with three 20th-place finishes in five races after the Indianapolis 500. He ended the season with three top ten finishes in the final five races.
Numbers to Remember:
10: Montoya's average finish in four Indianapolis 500 starts.
3: Montoya's median finish in four Indianapolis 500 starts.
3: Top five finishes in four Indianapolis 500 starts.
I think Montoya will run more than the Indianapolis 500. Whether that includes the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and/or the Penske-promoted Belle Isle doubleheader remains to be seen but Montoya will have more than one start in 2017. As for the Indianapolis 500, Montoya just has to do what he does. He has been a 500-mile race master his entire career and he was unfortunate in 2016. However, he has qualified worse in each of his four Indianapolis 500 starts. After starting second as a rookie in 2000, he has started tenth, 15th and 17th respectively in his last three starts. He should aim to qualify on one of the first four rows and get another top ten finish.
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 12th at 12:00 p.m. ET on ABC.