Wednesday, October 30, 2019

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2019 Season

The final IndyCar Wrap-Up is the championship team and for another year we conclude with Team Penske. For the sixth consecutive season Team Penske had at least a share for the most victories. The team won its 18th Indianapolis 500. It was another rosy year for The Captain in the IndyCar division.

Two championships in three seasons at Team Penske ain't bad for Josef Newgarden
Josef Newgarden
After falling back to fifth in the championship in 2018 following his 2017 IndyCar championship in his first season with Team Penske, Newgarden rose up and reminded people he is still around. He took the championship lead on day one of the season and only relinquished it after one race where he trailed by only one point. It was all Newgarden from June onward.

What objectively was his best race?
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series champion won four races, St. Petersburg, the first Belle Isle race, Texas and Iowa.

What subjectively was his best race?
Tim Cindric deserves a lot of credit for this championship because in three of Newgarden's four victories he went from not leading to leading after pit cycles and in each case once he got the lead he did not concede it.

In the season opener, Newgarden was running third or fourth but nowhere near Felix Rosenqvist and Will Power. Newgarden did make his first stop at the right time and got out in clear track while Rosenqvist and Power were negotiating traffic. Newgarden carved into the gap and flipped track position. Rosenqvist and Power made their pit stops and returned behind Newgarden.

The first Belle Isle race was more timing than anything else but Cindric had to make the call and when Newgarden hit pit lane, Matheus Leist slid into the tires. Caution was out, Newgarden cycled to the lead and with a damp track off the racing line Alexander Rossi did not have a prayer of getting back ahead of Newgarden.

Texas was brilliant strategy from Cindric. Newgarden was going to have to make four pit stops but instead of making four stops under green he burned one stop under caution and put himself back a few positions. However, Newgarden was able to run hard while everyone else made their final stops under green. This pace from Newgarden, along with his penultimate being a shorter stint, allowed for him to flip track position into his favor again and he made his final pit stop under green flag conditions and retain the lead. A few cautions bunched up the field but again Newgarden was able to hold off Rossi and take the victory.

I realize none of the above answers the question of what was Newgarden's best race subjectively speaking but I think it is Texas because Cindric's call turned what was going to be a less than memorable night into a victory for the team and solidified this team's championship push.

What objectively was his worst race?
It was the second Belle Isle race where Newgarden faced the pressure of having to keep a charging Rossi and James Hinchcliffe while exiting the pit lane. Newgarden took the inside line into turn three on cold tires and calamity followed.

Rossi spun, Newgarden was always going to run into the tires and Hinchcliffe collided with Newgarden just sending the American deeper into the barrier. It was game over right then and there and a top five finish turned into a 19th place finish after a retirement.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It was not so much that these were poor races but misfortune at the wrong time.

The first mistake was at Mid-Ohio. Newgarden was fourth at the start of the final lap. He was set to extend his championship lead but when Ryan Hunter-Reay got bogged in lapped traffic Newgarden made a move for third into the keyhole. Newgarden just got it a tad wrong. He got into the side of Hunter-Reay and spun in the gravel, stalling the car and turning a fourth into a 14th.

The second bit of misfortune was at Gateway. He was probably going to finish fifth and this wasn't entirely his fault as Santino Ferrucci ran wide and came down in front of Newgarden. It was more evasive action for Newgarden than a mistake as instead of running into Ferrucci, damaging both cars and putting both drivers at risk for injury, he spun and lost two spots, finishing seventh.

Mid-Ohio is the worst of the two results because Newgarden didn't have to go for it and it bit him. It was a case of Newgarden biting off more than he could chew. The good news for him is the dam did not burst on him after that summer day in Ohio.

Josef Newgarden's 2019 Statistics
Championship Position: 1st (641 points)
Wins: 4
Podiums: 7
Top Fives: 12
Top Tens: 14
Laps Led: 490
Poles: 2
Fast Sixes: 6
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 5.8125
Average Finish: 5.6471

Though 2019 did not end in a championship, Simon Pagenaud had plenty to smile about
Simon Pagenaud
After having his second winless season in four years with Team Penske, Pagenaud was put on the chopping block during the 2019 season and many were casting him aside. However, Pagenaud had as great of a season as you could have for Team Penske without winning the championship. He saved his job in May. That is all that has to be said.

What objectively was his best race?
Simon Pagenaud won three races, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis 500 and Toronto. The latter two races were won from pole position.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is hard for an Indianapolis 500 victory not to be a driver's best race of a season but that is the case for Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won the Indianapolis 500, and it was a memorable battle between him and Rossi with Pagenaud taking the checkered flag after leading over half the race, but what he did in the wet in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis was phenomenal. He was 5.5 seconds behind Scott Dixon with six laps to go. He annihilated the gap to Dixon and made his move for the lead in turn nine with just over two laps to go and then ran away to win by over two seconds.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis is what sets off what was a historic month of May for Pagenaud. Now, if Pagenaud had finished second in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis does it mean his Indianapolis 500 would have been all that different? I don't think so but the persistent talk for the entire 2018-19 offseason and the first two and a half months of the 2019 season was the precarious situation Pagenaud found himself in at Team Penske having not won a race in 2018, his second winless season in four years with the team.

Many were readying Pagenaud for unemployment and in the month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway he silenced all doubters.

What objectively was his worst race?
It was Circuit of the Americas, where Pagenaud started 22nd and finished 19th. It was a rough race for Pagenaud and right when it appear things were turning around late, he and Rossi made contact while Rossi was carving his way back to the front after having to make his final stop under caution. Pagenaud had damage and had to make an extra pit stop, relegating him to 19th.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It is Austin, although he did suffer damage on lap one in turn three in the second Belle Isle race and that put him behind the eight ball from the start. Repairs were made and he completed 58 laps but that was only good enough for 17th.

Simon Pagenaud's 2019 Statistics
Championship Position: 2nd (616 points)
Wins: 3
Podiums: 4
Top Fives: 7
Top Tens: 15
Laps Led: 268
Poles: 3
Fast Sixes: 4
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 9.0625
Average Finish: 6.5294

It was a strong end to 2019 for Will Power
Will Power
For another season, Power showed pace but had plenty of headaches. For every day he was quick he had a day where he stubbed his toe. Some were mistakes of his own. Other bad days were the equipment failing him again, something he has had trouble escaping since he won his first, and so far only, championship in 2014.

What objectively was his best race?
Power had two victories this season, the first came at Pocono and the second came at Portland.

What subjectively was his best race?
Neither of Power's two victories this season were all that dominant. At Pocono, he led 31 of 128 laps but when it was go time, when it was clear rain was going to play a role in deciding the race, Power and his team took control. They went for it and were racing for the rain. Power put himself in the right position when lightning entered the area and with the timing of the lightning, the timing of the rain and the proximity to sunset the race was called early with Power declared the winner.

Portland was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Scott Dixon broke down when Power was second and Power inherited the lead. He led 52 of 105 laps and did not face much of a challenge once Dixon's day was done.

What objectively was his worst race?
It was a 24th place finish at Austin after leading the first 45 of 60 laps because he broke a driveshaft exiting his pit box on his final stop.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It was a 24th place finish at Austin after leading the first 45 of 60 laps because he broke a driveshaft exiting his pit box on his final stop.

This is the kind of results Power is becoming known for in the last three seasons. This was a race that Power controlled and it was either going to be him or Rossi taking the victory with the other finishing second. It was going to come down to the final stops for these two drivers but the caution for Felix Rosenqvist's spin came out before either could stop. Both were caught out and were bound to be shuffled back. The car breaking on Power only added insult to injury.

I really thought about making Austin Power's subjective best race of 2019 because it was subjectively his best race of 2019. He led the first 2/3rds of the race from pole position and he did it with Rossi breathing down his neck. Power had to be precise on every lap on what was an unfamiliar and rough track in Austin and he didn't put a wheel wrong. It was a combination of bad timing and faulty equipment that ruined his day.

Another race to mention is Toronto. Power was bad at Toronto. He got into the tires in turn eight on lap one and he got into the tires in turn eight on the final lap. It was not his greatest day in Canada.

Will Power's 2019 Statistics
Championship Position: 5th (550 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 6
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 239
Poles: 3
Fast Sixes: 7
Fast Twelves: 9
Average Start: 5.9375
Average Finish: 8.9412

An Early Look Ahead
Team Penske is going to be fine. Newgarden will be back, Pagenaud will be back and Power will be back. Pencil in another eight victories for this team in 2020.

All three of these drivers are going to be championship contenders. We just don't know which one will start the best and carry momentum throughout the season. However, all three drivers have things to improve on.

Power has to stop making mistakes and avoid the mechanical issues. It always seems to be him with the mechanical issues at Team Penske. It is not directly on Power but that team has to figure out what goes wrong and a way to prevent it from continuing to pop up during races.

Pagenaud needs to find that extra gear for more of the season. He won three races in 2019 but he had only four podium finishes. That is not a lot. Takuma Sato had four podium finishes and he wasn't really a championship contender.

It is a team sport but Newgarden has to go out and not use his team as much. Newgarden needs to get to the front of a race and stay there.

There is also the case that Newgarden has two championships with the team and the one thing that is lacking from his three seasons at Team Penske is an Indianapolis 500 victory. As important as the Indianapolis 500 is, let's calm down that Newgarden has won it yet. He is turning 29 years old just before this Christmas. He has a lot of time left. Also remember that it took Power a decade with Team Penske to win the Indianapolis 500.

There is not much else to say about this team. All three drivers are secure for at least the next five seasons. The team is out of the Alexander Rossi sweepstakes for at least the next two or three seasons and then it will come down to whether or not the team wants to expand to four cars.

Team Penske finds itself at one of its highest points. The team has won three of the last four championships, four of the last six titles and three of the last five Indianapolis 500s. The 2020 season will see Team Penske attempt to win three consecutive championships for the third time in organization history having previously done it from 1977-79 and from 1981-83. The team will attempt to win three consecutive Indianapolis 500s for the second time having previously done it from 2001-03.

There is plenty left on the plate for this team to achieve and do not be surprised if Team Penske is the final team review at the end of the 2020 season.