Wednesday, November 7, 2018

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2018 Season

The antepenultimate wrap-up might be a surprise as it is Team Penske. It is not often this team is reviewed so early in the offseason but after winning the championship the last two seasons, Team Penske was bumped out of the top spot. Team Penske won the most races in IndyCar with six victories and it was the fifth consecutive season the team had at least a share of most victories for a team with this being the third consecutive season Team Penske had sole possession of most victories. A highlight of the season was Team Penske reaching the 200 IndyCar victory milestone with the organization breaking 500 victories across all series.

Though it did not end in the championship, 2018 might be the best of Will Power's career
Will Power
The Australian had another stand out year and he climbed up the record books in multiple categories. On top of the history made, Power joined an elite club of drivers in winning a famed race at the end of May. Despite all the positives for Power, enough things went against him that he was again fighting an uphill battle in the championship.

What objectively was his best race?
Power picked up three victories this season. He won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis for the second consecutive year and third time in the last four seasons. He won the Indianapolis 500 after starting second on the grid and he led 59 laps, the second most in the race. His final victory was at Gateway, a race where Power ran flat out while some conserved fuel on the final stint. Power pulled away and it allowed him to make his final stop for a splash and come out in second. He was able to pass the conserving Alexander Rossi and go unchallenged to the checkered flag.

What subjectively was his best race?
The Indianapolis 500. This was the year where we really took greater stock of where Power stands in the history of IndyCar. Entering this season, Power was ninth in all-time victories with 32, he was destined to pass A.J. Foyt for second all-time in pole positions and he had won a championship but we really had not been placing in conversations with the all-time greats while Scott Dixon was causally being mentioned with the Andrettis, the Unsers and Foyt.

I hate that people place such a weight on the Indianapolis 500 and act like if you haven't won it you aren't shit because that isn't the case. Power has been one of the most remarkable and breathtaking drivers in IndyCar. If you had to pick one driver to run a qualifying lap for your life, Power is arguably the number one selection. The Indianapolis 500 is an important race and it shouldn't dictate the greatness of a driver as much as it does but Power adding it to his résumé only shuts up whatever morons are still out there and think he is a hack.

In the seconds after victory, it seemed Power knew he had the trump card and told the world off. "Show me some respect, motherfuckers!" No greater words may have ever been spoken.

What objectively was his worst race?
Twenty-third at Road America where he had a cracked header at the start of the race. He was a lame duck at the green flag and from second on the grid.

What subjectively was his worst race?
An individual race cannot be picked out because Power has fallen into this trend the last few seasons of having not one terrible race but three or four terrible races and it is getting worse. In 2018, Power had four finishes outside the top twenty and six finishes outside the top fifteen. The season before that, Power had two finishes outside the top twenty and five finishes outside the top fifteen. He didn't have a finish outside the top twenty in 2016 but he did have four finishes outside the top fifteen and he was not able to start at St. Petersburg after winning pole position due to an inner ear condition.

It was a cracked header at Road America and a gearbox issue at Portland. He got into the barrier at Phoenix and Texas and he hydroplaned at Barber.

Despite all these issues, Power keeps himself in the championship conversation deep into each summer. The problem is the great summer runs Power has gone on have only kept him in the discussion and they have not had him leading the conversation.

Will Power's 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 3rd (582 points)
Wins: 3
Podiums: 8
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 358
Poles: 4
Fast Sixes: 8
Fast Twelves: 9
Average Start: 2.6875
Average Finish: 9.47

The title defense was unsuccessful but 2018 was far from a disappointment for Josef Newgarden
Josef Newgarden
Newgarden entered as the defending champion and his title defense started out strong. However, after six seasons of being IndyCar's darling, without a blemish and always on the rise, 2018 was the first step back in the Tennessean's young career. He was still fast and at the front and was one of the top drivers in the season.

What objectively was his best race?
The 2017 champion won three races during his title defense. The first came at Phoenix, in what was a race where Newgarden did not dominate but he was at the front and was always in contention. Newgarden has become a short track stalwart in IndyCar and while the results at Phoenix were good but not great there in his first two starts, the third time was the charm. The next victory was a beat down at Barber, a track he become the master of in his still rather short IndyCar career. His first career victory came at the track in 2015, he finished third there in 2016 and he won in 2017 and 2018, with this season's result coming from pole position and leading 73 of 82 laps in a wet-to-Monday-to-dry-to-wet race. And Barber was not his most dominant performance of the season. He started on pole position again at Road America and he led 53 of 55 laps with the only two laps he did not lead coming during pit cycle.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is Road America. Although he pulled away from the field at Barber, to do what he did at Road America is impressive. Ryan Hunter-Reay nipped at Newgarden's heels for most of the race but it never looked like Newgarden was going to be beat.

What objectively was his worst race?
Surprisingly, Newgarden's worst result of the season was 15th in the second Belle Isle race. He started 19th and couldn't make his way to the front. He did finish on the lead lap though.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It is Iowa because he should have had one of the most dominant performances in IndyCar history and instead he finished fourth. He led 229 of 300 laps and at one point it looked like Newgarden was going to lap the field before we got to halfway. A caution bunched up the field and got a few drivers back on the lead lap but even after that Newgarden pulled away. The race was lost in the final 50 laps. James Hinchcliffe chased Newgarden down and in an uncharacteristic performance from Team Penske, they mailed it in. They didn't know Hinchcliffe was on the lead lap and let him pass only to realize the lead was handed away. There was no chance to counter. Hinchcliffe was gone and then the team made the gamble to stop for tires under the final caution only time ran out and a restart was not possible. Newgarden got caught napping, lost a victory then took a gamble and lost a podium finish. 

Josef Newgarden's 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 5th (23 points)
Wins: 3
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 6
Top Tens: 14
Laps Led: 485
Poles: 4
Fast Sixes: 8
Fast Twelves: 8
Average Start: 5.375
Average Finish: 7.117

Simon Pagenaud was frustratingly good in 2018
Simon Pagenaud
The new package coincided with a decline in results for Pagenaud but that decline still saw him finish with 14 top ten finishes including ten consecutive to close out the season, the second consecutive season he closed out the season with ten consecutive top ten finishes. In Pagenaud's eight full seasons in IndyCar, he has had at least nine top ten finishes every season.

What objectively was his best race?
Second will have to do for Simon Pagenaud and he had to settle for two runner-up finishes this season. At Texas, the blistering issue that befell all three Penske drivers was not so bad for the Frenchman and while Power and Newgarden slipped back, Pagenaud hung on. Cautions fell his way and he was able to hold off Rossi late to finish second. At Toronto, Pagenaud ran up front the entire race but he could not keep up with Scott Dixon.

What subjectively was his best race?
He led 26 laps at Texas. In the other 16 races he led a combined five laps.

What objectively was his worst race?
Long Beach! He was taken out before turn one when Graham Rahal plowed into him and it left him scored as the 24th finisher. Worst of all, it ended a streak of 22 consecutive races completing every lap! And he started third!

What subjectively was his worst race?
His only other finishes outside the top ten were 13th at St. Petersburg and 17th at Belle Isle in the first race of the weekend but those weren't devastating days. I think what was worst is that in pretty much every race Pagenaud was good but in no race was he great in 2018. His two runner-up finishes are his only podium finishes of the season and there isn't another result that I look at and think he should have been three spots better or could have won. Sixth in the Indianapolis 500? That sounds about right. Eighth at Iowa? I can't think he should have done better. Fourth at Gateway? He was fortunate Ryan Hunter-Reay broke down otherwise it would have been fifth.

With all that said, besides maybe Gateway, there isn't a race where Pagenaud caught a break and finished three or four spots better than he should have because of a lot of attrition or a timely caution. Pagenaud's season might be the most fitting for any driver in 2018.

Simon Pagenaud's 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 6th (492 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 14
Laps Led: 31
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 6
Average Start: 8.125
Average Finish: 8.588

An Early Look Ahead
Can we start with a quick sidebar on Hélio Castroneves and the fourth Penske entry?

Castroneves did fine with finishes of sixth and 27th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 respectively with the latter ending with an accident. I got the feeling Castroneves wanted to still be full-time in IndyCar and I kind of wish he did more races than just the two races in May. I kind of wanted to see him at Road America, Portland and Sonoma.

With that said, I also wish we got to see Juan Pablo Montoya in 2018 and he was the odd man out. It is sad he didn't get to run the Indianapolis but it would have been a nice gesture to give him Pocono and Gateway.

I understand why Penske is not running four cars full-time and it is not likely to change in the near future but with eight races scheduled to be on network television in 2018, wouldn't it be nice if Penske could at least get a fourth car into those races and split it amongst a few drivers? Let Castroneves have Indianapolis and another two races and give Montoya two or three races. But what about having someone different in the car for the remaining races? Ricky Taylor tested an IndyCar; why not give him a race seat? This could be used as a Penske audition for a driver who cannot breakthrough as a full-timer, looking at you Conor Daly and Carlos Muñoz. I think it would be nice to have. Penske isn't going to do it but the series would be better off if he did.

It is hard to have the most victories amongst teams, two drivers in the top five of the championship, three in the top six and on top of all that win the Indianapolis 500 and have a bad year but this falls as a bad year for Team Penske.

Ok... maybe it wasn't a bad year just because the team didn't win the championship but Team Penske has a high bar. This team wants to dominate and winning the Indianapolis 500 might have checked off a box of goals but not retaining the championship is a bit of a disappointment.

Penske will be fine. Does Power need to get to the end of more races and in at least a top ten position? Yes. Does Newgarden need more finishes on the podium? Yes. Does Pagenaud need to find his footing and get back to being a contender for victories? Absolutely and I have no doubt all three will make those corrections for 2019.

Power is going to win races, win pole positions and be a title threat. Newgarden was bound to take a step back after improving his championship position every year he was in IndyCar and that culminated in a championship in 2017. He could only go backward and he did but he was still at the front and he has a chance to rebound in 2019. Pagenaud struggled his first year with Penske, which coincided with the introduction of the manufacture-specific aero kits but in year two he was the man to beat and won the championship. He figured it out then and he wasn't that far off in 2018. A step forward could be to the top step and a second championship. 

Come this time next year we will be writing about a Penske driver or two or three battling for the championship. It seems to be a guarantee.