Wednesday, February 21, 2018

2018 IndyCar Team Preview: Team Penske

Though we are not saving the best for last, we are getting into the final IndyCar team previews and it is time to look at the defending champions Team Penske. The team is coming off a highly successful season. It was the only Chevrolet team to win in 2017 with the team picking up ten victories, including five consecutive races, the first team to win five consecutive races since 2005. The team is downsizing but is still holding onto to three drivers that were responsible for nine of the team's 10 victories last year and all three finished in the top five of the championship.

2017 Team Penske Review:
Wins: 10 (Barber, Phoenix, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Gateway, Sonoma)
Poles: 11 (St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Barber, Phoenix, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Road America, Iowa, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Gateway, Sonoma.)
Final Championship Positions: 1st (Josef Newgarden), 2nd (Simon Pagenaud), 4th (Hélio Castroneves), 5th (Will Power), 24th (Juan Pablo Montoya).

2018 Drivers:

Josef Newgarden - #1 Hum by Verizon/Fitzgerald Glider Kits/PPG/DeVilbiss Chevrolet
IndyCar's great hope made his long awaited Penske debut at St. Petersburg and while being more of a victim than a benefactor from the caution that put Sébastien Bourdais in position to dominate, Newgarden still finished eighth. Race two saw Newgarden as the top Penske driver with a third place finish. He had a solid day going at Barber and while a podium was in his hand, the unfortunate tire issues for his teammate Will Power allowed Newgarden to inherit the lead and he held off Scott Dixon to pick up his first victory for Team Penske in his third start with the team. He had a bit of a trap race at Phoenix with a few brushes with the wall dropping him to ninth at the one-mile oval.

Indianapolis did not go his way. A top ten in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis was spoiled when multiple pit lane speeding penalties dropped him down the order. He had a hard accident in Indianapolis 500 practice and never found the speed to be competitive in the race and an accident would end his day. The Indianapolis slump was cleaned up in Detroit with a fourth and a second. Newgarden was wide-eyed in his return to Texas and while he showed pace to contend for the victory, an ambitious move exiting turn four led to a reunion with the wall. He didn't have a broken collarbone and hand at Road America and he was the top Penske driver for most of the day and finished second.

A sixth place finish at Iowa was followed with two consecutive victories at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. A timely pit stop and slower traffic were in his favor in Canada and he had a dominant drive in the Buckeye State. Newgarden had a wishy-washy day in Pocono but in the end he was on Power's rear and challenging for a third consecutive victory only to come home in second. With the championship in his sight, Newgarden didn't settle for second at Gateway and moved Simon Pagenaud for his fourth victory of the season. Watkins Glen ended with a collision with the wall exiting the pit lane and cost him a chunk of points. The tension did not get to his head at Sonoma and he won his first pole position of the season. Knowing what he had to do, Newgarden cruised to a second place finish and the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Numbers to Remember:
1.6667: Average number of victories in a season for drivers using the #1 since reunification.

2: Most victories in a season for a driver using #1 since reunification (Ryan Hunter-Reay 2013, Simon Pagenaud 2017).

26: Newgarden was 26 years old when he won the championship. He became the first driver to win the championship in his 20s since Scott Dixon in 2008. He was the youngest champion since Sébastien Bourdais in 2004.

There was a feeling this championship was always bound to happen for Newgarden. It was a matter if a desperate fan base hoping this time IndyCar had found its Messiah could bare a possible rough first season at Team Penske. The good news is he lived up to the hype. Whether Newgarden ushers in a new flock of followers remains to be seen but the answer is no he won't. Newgarden could win all 17 races this year and it would still be a footnote in today's American sports landscape. Hell, he could win all 17 races and still not change the minds at Haas F1.

While he hosts the #1 on the front of his car for this season, Newgarden is anything but Penske's #1 driver. His two teammates aren't going to lie down. They both want the #1 back and Newgarden made it known he isn't afraid to bump elbows with his teammates if that is what it takes to win. He won't be shut out in the win column but four victories on two road courses, a street circuit and a short oval is difficult to repeat. I think Newgarden wins another oval race and possibly a big oval race. Maybe even one of the two 500-mile races. One thing Newgarden was good at was being the top Penske finisher despite being the worst Penske qualifier. I think that could continue in 2018 but Newgarden should take a step forward in his qualifying performances this season.

Will Power - #12 Verizon Chevrolet
Another season started with a pole position but while a victory didn't appear to be in the cards in St. Petersburg Power positioned himself for a podium finish. Then his engine started misfiring and he retired. Early contact with Charlie Kimball sent him to the back at Long Beach and he finished a lap down. Right when it appeared Power would turn it around with a victory at Barber, a slowly deflating tire forced a late pit stop and all he could manage was a 14th place finish. The high downforce package was to Power's advantage in Phoenix and he finished second and started the month of May with a victory from pole position for his second Grand Prix of Indianapolis victory.

In the Indianapolis 500, Power made a great start but faded and would be caught in an accident in turn two. Saturday was dreadful in Detroit but the second race from Belle Isle saw Power on the third step of the podium. Once he got to the front at Texas Power never left the bottom and won what proved to be a frantic night. Another summer championship run appeared to be in the cards with finishes of fifth and fourth at Road America and Toronto respectively but rear suspension damage on lap one at Toronto tore a hole in that sail. A second at Mid-Ohio and a stunning victory at Pocono appeared to get Power back on track but a pole position was wasted in the wall before a green flag lap could be completed at Gateway. A sixth at Watkins Glen and a third to sweep the Sonoma podium was only good enough for fifth in the championship.

Numbers to Remember:
9: Power had qualified on one of the first three rows for the Indianapolis 500 nine consecutive years. Power is the only driver to make every Fast Nine session in Indianapolis 500 qualifying.

11: Number of lead lap finishes for Power each of the last three years.

13: Number of races running at the finish for Power each of the last three years.

First and foremost, Power cannot have the number of retirements and odd occurrences that went against him like he did in 2017. Some of them seem unlikely to happen again. What are the odds of losing an engine, getting hit on lap one and having a tire puncture while leading in the closing laps of a race three races in succession? That poor start set him back and while his summer was still impressive it wasn't enough to get him out of the hole, especially when one of his teammates kept winning, another kept finishing in the top five and Scott Dixon is still in the series.

Power will likely win the most pole positions this season and he will likely be in sole position of second all-time in pole positions before the start of summer as he is three behind A.J. Foyt's 53 pole positions. Power could also become the second driver all-time to win at least one race in 12 consecutive seasons. The only other driver to accomplish that is Scott Dixon, who has an active streak of 13 consecutive seasons with a victory. The Australian is going to put up a championship fight and if we learned anything from last season Power is going to have to be stellar if he wants the title.

Simon Pagenaud - #22 Menards/DXC Technology/PPG Chevrolet
The Frenchman entered 2017 defending a championship but his title defense started with a bit of adversity at the first race. Pagenaud failed to advance from the first round of qualifying and had to start 14th in the season opener. A fortunate caution after a pit stop cycled him to the lead but soon he would be dropped to second and had nothing to challenge Sébastien Bourdais. He missed the second round of qualifying for the second consecutive race at Long Beach and started 21st after a blocking penalty but he made another run to the front, cracking the top five and he finished third at Barber. His tenth career victory was his first career victory on an oval with a dominating drive at Phoenix.

A fourth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis made it five top five finishes from the first five races of the season and six consecutive races dating back to 2016. The Indianapolis 500 did not go well with a 14th-place finish and the first race at Belle Isle did not go his way either. He rebounded with three consecutive top five finishes before a seventh place finish at Iowa. Timing did not go his way at Toronto and a pole position was canceled out with a caution before his first pit stop but he fought to a fifth place finish. He picked up a pair of fourths at Mid-Ohio and Pocono and a nudge from his teammate dropped him to third at Gateway. The changing conditions threw off his rhythm at Watkins Glen but a roll of the dice in the form of an all out strategy got him another victory at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
2,331: Laps completed by Pagenaud last year. He completed every lap, only the second driver in IndyCar history to complete every lap in a season.

20: Pagenaud became the 20th driver to have at least 13 top five finishes in a season.

35: Years since Team Penske last won three consecutive championships from 1981-1983.

As excited as people are for Josef Newgarden, I think Pagenaud is more likely to be remembered as one of the all-time greats. The man completed every lap in a season and lost the title. He finished in the top ten 15 times out of 17 races. It is hard to point a finger at what went wrong in his 2017 season because nothing went wrong. He had two poor results at Indianapolis and Belle Isle. Multiple champions have had results worse than that or a higher number of poor results than Pagenaud did only 2017 was the year when excellence wasn't enough.

Pagenaud doesn't put a wheel wrong. He has finished 20 consecutive races. Before he retired at Pocono in 2016 he had finished 23 consecutive races. He has finished 110 of 118 starts in his career. He has never had more than two retirements in a season. You can count on Pagenaud to bring the car home and if he repeats everything he did in 2017, and I mean finishes in the exact same position in all the races and that means finish ninth at Portland in place of his ninth at Watkins Glen, he will likely have his second championship in three seasons.

Do not be surprised if the 2018 season comes down to who is the most consistent between Pagenaud and Scott Dixon. It could be never-ending a staring contest.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 11th at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.