Wednesday, November 8, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2017 Season

We have reached the final IndyCar team review and of course it is the championship-winning Team Penske. Josef Newgarden's debut season with the team saw him take the championship, beating three experienced teammates who combined for 67 victories entering this season. That didn't scare the American. He didn't need a year to adjust. He jumped right in and led the pack.

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Josef Newgarden
The long awaited Penske debut for Newgarden was a solid run at St. Petersburg. Despite being caught out by the debris caution, Newgarden ran in the top ten all race and finished eighth. Thanks to the slew of Honda cars breaking down, Newgarden was able to jump into podium contention at Long Beach and he finished third, the top Penske in the field. He put himself in the right position at Barber despite being the slowest Penske driver in qualifying. He was running second when Will Power had to pit for a deflating tire and Newgarden held off Scott Dixon to get his first victory with the team. He had a good run at Phoenix but twice brushed the wall, had to make extra pit stops and he had to settle for a ninth place finish.

A pair of pit lane speeding penalties killed a promising day in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and he finished 11th. Newgarden had an accident during practice for the Indianapolis 500 and he never really showed the pace it would take to win from that point on. He started 22nd and was middle of the field all race before his race ended in a turn two accident. He got back on the right path at Belle Isle. A three-stop strategy and a bunch of fast laps got him a fourth place finish in race one. Race two saw him use the three-stop strategy again and it got him a second place finish. Newgarden might have been able to give Will Power a run for his money at Texas but an ambitious move in turn four saw him slide into the wall exiting turn four and end his race.

His summer started with a good run at Road America. He was the best Penske all race but Scott Dixon made his move to take the lead on a restart and ran away with it, leaving Newgarden to settle with another second place finish. Newgarden didn't have the oval pace from Texas carry over to Iowa. He finished sixth but was never a factor for the victory. Newgarden was on pit road right as Tony Kanaan buried himself in the turn one tires at Toronto. It gave him the lead and he never looked back as he led 58 laps on his way to victory. While he started second at Mid-Ohio, he quickly found himself in the lead and was never really challenged by Power even after a restart with 20 laps to go. His third victory of the season gave him the championship lead for the first time in his career.

Newgarden started 14th at Pocono but he found himself in the battle for the victory at the end of the race and as much as he tried to find a way around Power all he could do was settle for another runner-up finish. The championship tightened up heading to Gateway. Power and Newgarden shared the front row again but Newgarden took the lead on the outside early and Power spun before getting through turn two on the first green flag lap. Newgarden traded the lead with teammates Hélio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud and in the closing stages Newgarden was second to Pagenaud. It appeared he would settle in and take the points but he made one gutsy move entering turn one and made it stick. He was gone and a fourth victory was in the bag.

He qualified third for Watkins Glen and it appeared he would extend the championship lead. He dropped back a few positions but a top ten was never in doubt until a race off the pit lane with Power. Newgarden lost a position to his teammate but on cold tires he slid into the pit lane wall, damaging his car and causing Sébastien Bourdais to have nowhere to go but into the back of the American. Newgarden finished the race but two laps down in 18th. With his championship lead down to three points over Scott Dixon entering Sonoma, Newgarden did not snap under pressure. He won his first pole position of the season and led the first 17 laps in the race. Newgarden led 41 laps and never put a wheel wrong. When Pagenaud took the lead, though he gave it one look into turn seven, Newgarden settled for second. It was all he needed as he won his first championship in his first season with Team Penske.

Josef Newgarden's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 1st (642 points)
Wins: 4
Podiums: 9
Top Fives: 10
Top Tens: 13
Laps Led: 390
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 6
Fast Twelves: 9
Average Start: 7.941
Average Finish: 6.058

A historic season was not enough for Pagenaud to retain the title
Simon Pagenaud
The Frenchman's title defense saw him start with an uphill battle after he failed to make it out of round one in qualifying and he started 14th. The timely yellow saw Pagenaud inherit the lead as the front runners had to make pit stops but soon Sébastien Bourdais passed him and Bourdais was gone, leaving Pagenaud to settle for second. Race two saw a blocking penalty in qualifying force Pagenaud to start dead last at Long Beach. He ran hard all race and it got him a fifth place finish. He finally had a good starting position at Barber but he could do no better than his starting position with a third place finish. Phoenix saw Pagenaud pick up his first oval victory with the Frenchman leading 116 laps, most of the race, and he led the final 114 laps in a comfortable victory.

He ran in the top five all race in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and he finished fourth but he never really had it in the Indianapolis 500. He started 23rd, lowest of the five Penske entries and he never had the pace to get to the front. He completed all 200 laps but finished 14th. Pagenaud had another off day in the first Belle Isle race with a 16th-place finish but he improved in race two finishing fifth. By being one of the few survivors at Texas, Pagenaud found himself on the podium again with a third place finish. He started and finished fourth in a quiet day at Road America.

Pagenaud was bottom of the four Penske drivers at Iowa but still ran to a respectable seventh place finish. He didn't make the most of his pole position at Toronto and was then shuffled back after the Tony Kanaan caution but he ran hard and got up to fifth. He had another top five run at Mid-Ohio with a fourth place finish but was well off his teammates Newgarden and Power, who finish first and second respectively.

He started on the outside of row one at Pocono but didn't lead a lap. He had a good car and quietly finished fourth. Gateway appeared it would be his second victory of the season. Pagenaud led after the final round of pit stops but Newgarden's audacious move in turn one took a victory from the Frenchman and even worse dropped him to third. The changing weather conditions at Watkins Glen made for a rough day for Pagenaud. It was bad enough he had to start 12th and he could do no better than ninth. Pagenaud had a shot at the title at Sonoma but he needed Newgarden to falter. The team decided to go to a four-stop strategy and it worked. He was fast and held off Newgarden to win the race and Pagenaud completed every lap run in the 2017 season, only the second driver to accomplish that feat, but he fell short in the championship.

Simon Pagenaud's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 2nd (629 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 6
Top Fives: 13
Top Tens: 15
Laps Led: 187
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 4
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 8.647
Average Finish: 5.294

Castroneves got a win, but not a championship
Hélio Castroneves
Like fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan, 2017 marked the 20th season of IndyCar competition for Castroneves and like typical Hélio Castroneves he finished sixth at St. Petersburg but this came after he started 16th on the grid. He picked up his first pole position of the season at Long Beach but he was quickly shuffled back. A pit lane speeding penalty was another set back but he was able to get a ninth place finish out of that day. He started second at Barber but never played into the fight for the victory and he finished fourth. He got another pole position at Phoenix and he led the first 73 laps but during the first round of pit stops he was shuffled back and never factored into the race for the victory after that and he settled for fourth.

In the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Castroneves did lead for a while after a round of pit stops but he went two laps too long on the next stint and lost the lead to his teammate Will Power. Then he got dropped a few more positions with the likes of Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud overtaking the Brazilian and he had to settle with a fifth place finish. Castroneves qualified a career-worst 19th for the Indianapolis 500. He had to drive under the somersaulting car of Scott Dixon at one point. Another blow during the race was he was handed a penalty for jumping a restart, a near impossible penalty to earn in IndyCar. However, through sheer Penske strategy and a pair of cautions, Castroneves found himself in the top five and was in contention for his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. He fought with Takuma Sato, Ed Jones and Max Chilton. He was leading with seven laps to go but Sato would take the lead and hold on. Castroneves picked up his third runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 to go with his three Indianapolis 500 victories.

Castroneves started second in race one from Belle Isle after thinking he won pole position but lost it because he ignored a local yellow in his qualifying group. Mistimed pit strategy cost him a podium, dropping him to seventh in the final results. He started fourth in race two but dropped outside the top ten. A late move got him up to ninth. He suffered a tire failure exiting turn two at Texas and that end his night after 90 laps.

He scored another pole position at Road America but lost the lead after the first stint to Josef Newgarden and was shuffled back to third. He finally got off the snide at Iowa. He started third and led 217 of 300 laps but he had to chase down J.R. Hildebrand as they navigated slower traffic late in the race. Once he got by, the victory was never in doubt. Castroneves made a bold move at the start of the Toronto race, going from third to first in the first turn of the race. His chance of consecutive victory evaporated when the caution came out for Tony Kanaan ending up in the tires. All Castroneves could manage out of it was an eighth place finish. He followed that up with a seventh place finish at Mid-Ohio.

At Pocono, he started 20th but worked his way into the top ten and settled for another seventh place finish. It appeared a second victory would be in his cards at Gateway but he stalled on his penultimate pit stop, the lead was gone and he finished fourth The drying conditions in the opening laps at Watkins Glen had Castroneves in the lead on lap two after Alexander Rossi had a bobble. However, the American ran Castroneves down. He was eventually dropped to fourth. He was the worst of the four Penske drivers at Sonoma where he finished fifth.

Hélio Castroneves' 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 4th (598 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 9
Top Tens: 16
Laps Led: 442
Poles: 3
Fast Sixes: 7
Fast Twelves: 8
Average Start: 6.0
Average Finish: 6.176

The good days couldn't counterbalance the bad ones in 2017 for Will Power
Will Power
His season started like many do: On pole position for the season opener at St. Petersburg. James Hinchcliffe jumped him early but Power remained at the front. He had to make an early pit stop but at the second caution Power was in the top ten and by the end of the second stint he was back up to third. However, in the closing laps his engine started to go and he had to retire. At Long Beach, contact with Charlie Kimball put him behind the eight ball early and he finished a lap down in 13th. Power was leading late at Barber and he appeared in position to win until a deflating tire forced him to pit with 14 laps to go and it ironically dropped him to a 14th-place finish. He finally got a good result at Phoenix. He started second, led 59 laps and finished second to Simon Pagenaud.

He followed up his runner-up performance with a dominating victory in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis as he led 61 of 85 laps from pole position. Power was the top Penske qualifier for the Indianapolis 500 and the only one of the team's five cars to make the Fast Nine. He started ninth but he was second by the end of lap one. Power did fall back after that and was never really a contender only to be caught up in an accident in turn two late in the race and he finished 23rd. Race one from Belle Isle did not go well as he started 11th and proceeded to fall back and finish 18th. A blown lap in qualifying forced him to start seventh in race two but he recovered and finished third. At Texas, Power started ninth but quickly found himself in the lead and he never got off the bottom on the racetrack. He led 180 of 248 laps on his way to his second victory of the season.

A poor start at Road America was the start to a hectic day for Power. Twice he had to give up positions for blocking and he even made contact with James Hinchcliffe. He was able to finish fifth. Power started from pole position at Iowa but he could not compete with his teammate Hélio Castroneves and J.R. Hildebrand. He ran in the top five all race and he finished fourth. Toronto saw his race end in turn three after contact with Scott Dixon broke his suspension. He won pole position at Mid-Ohio but after 12 laps he was dropped from the lead by Josef Newgarden who never looked back. Power finished in second comfortably.

Another late season charge appeared to be on for Power. He followed up his second at Mid-Ohio with another stellar drive at Pocono. This time he had to overcome a broken front wing and unscheduled pit stops. A stint of rapid laps allowed him to make his final stop off sequence and get out ahead of the field. He held off Newgarden and Alexander Rossi for the victory. Then came Gateway and that hot streak ended when he spun in turn two on the first lap of green flag racing. He nearly cost his teammate Newgarden the championship at Watkins Glen but at least Power finished sixth. He closed the season by wrapping up a Penske 1-2-3 at Sonoma.

Will Power's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 5th (562 points)
Wins: 3
Podiums: 7
Top Fives: 9
Top Tens: 10
Laps Led: 443
Poles: 6
Fast Sixes: 7
Fast Twelves: 9
Average Start: 4.35
Average Finish: 9.176

Last year, I compared Team Penske's 1994 season to the 2016 season and the same has to be done after this season. The common thing from these three seasons was not only did Penske dominate and win the championship but also each driver got a share of the fun. All four drivers won this year for Penske and the team combined for ten victories from 17 races, one fewer than 1994 but one more than 2016, and the team won five consecutive races during the season, the longest winning streak for the team since it won seven consecutive races in 1994.

The team did not sweep the top three positions like it did in 1994 and 2016 but it took first, second, fourth and fifth in the championship. The team swept the podium on only one occasion, the season finale at Sonoma, more than 2016 but four fewer than the 1994 team. Overall the four drivers combined for 25 podium finishes, four less than 1994 but three more than 2016. Penske had at least one driver on the podium in 15 of the 17 races, the same total as 1994 but the 1994 season had 16 races and last year's team had at least one driver on the podium in 14 race but there was one fewer race last year. This year's bunch equaled the number of pole positions won by last year's team at 11, which is one more than the 1994 team.

The 2017 team was impressive when it came to leading laps with Team Penske sweeping the top four in the laps led column. Team Penske led a total of 1,462 of 2,331 laps (62.719%) in 2017 and it dwarfs the number put up by the 2016 team, which led 811 of 2,070 laps (39.178%). However, the 1994 team was impressive with the trio of Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy not only sweeping the top three in most laps led that season but the team combining for 1,584 laps led out of 2,083 laps (76.04%).

We can spin the numbers and look into the difference of eras and how IndyCar has changed and debate if the 2017 numbers are more impressive or vice versa but the one thing 1994 will always have over the 2016 and 2017 seasons is Team Penske won the Indianapolis 500 in 1994 with Al Unser, Jr. I am not that type of guy who weighs the Indianapolis 500 above everything else, the season has to be taken serious and the performance over the course of more than a dozen races means more than just one day in May, but when looking at how dominant these three seasons were, the Indianapolis 500 victory becomes the cherry on top that is missing from the last two seasons.

Team Penske moves on to 2018 with three drivers, three champions and all three looking for their first Indianapolis 500 victory. The team has not won three consecutive championships since 1981-1983 and while the introduction of the universal aero kit should level the playing field, Team Penske is Team Penske and it will be one step ahead of the competition.