Wednesday, February 24, 2021

2021 IndyCar Team Preview: Team Penske

Our final IndyCar Team Preview will be Team Penske, which could not successfully defend its championship in 2020, but the team still won seven of 14 races, including the final three races and five of the final six. 

Josef Newgarden led the way again and he took Scott Dixon to the wire in the battle for the Astor Cup. Will Power was hit or miss. His best days were incredible, but his worst days were unbearable. Simon Pagenaud wasn't quite the Simon Pagenaud we are used to seeing. All three drivers will return for 2021, but they will have a new teammate. Penske will expand back to four cars and Scott McLaughlin could become the first rookie to contest a complete IndyCar season for Team Penske. 

2020 Team Penske Review
Wins: 7 (Iowa I & II, Gateway II, Mid-Ohio I, Harvest Grand Prix I & II, St. Petersburg)
Poles: 8 (Texas, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Road America I, Iowa II, Gateway I, Mid-Ohio I, Harvest Grand Prix II, St. Petersburg)
Championship Finishes: 2nd (Josef Newgarden), 5th (Will Power), 8th (Simon Pagenaud)

2021 Drivers:

Josef Newgarden - #2 Hitachi Chevrolet
Newgarden started his title defense on pole position at Texas, but Scott Dixon had the upper hand in the race. Newgarden had a quality run finishing third. He picked up a seventh-place finish at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, his best finish on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. 

Things started well at Road America. He picked up another pole position and dominated the first half of the first race. It looked like Newgarden was set for a commanding first victory, but a caution came out and forced the cars to pit lane. He stalled on his pit stop and dropped down the order. He flat spotted his tires on the restart and it forced an extra pit stop. After 14th on day one, he was ninth in the second Road America race. 

Newgarden adopted a severe fuel save strategy in the first Iowa race and pulled out a top five finish. The next night, he was superb, leading 214 of 250 laps on his way to his first victory of the season. He was the best Penske car at Indianapolis, but never quite made it up with the front-runners. He was fifth. He was off in the first Gateway race and he found himself 117 points behind Scott Dixon. However, in the next race, Newgarden's team won him this race on pit lane after putting him ahead of Patricio O'Ward and the comeback began. 

He was second and eighth in Mid-Ohio, ahead of Dixon on both days and the gap was decreased to 72 points. He won the first Harvest Grand Prix race after having a strong second half of the race and he was fourth in race two while Dixon finished ninth and eighth at that doubleheader. Newgarden kept his title hopes alive, 32 points behind Dixon, with one race remaining.

Newgarden needed to win and have Dixon finish tenth or worse. Newgarden won, but Dixon was third and Newgarden fell 16 points shy of a successful title defense.

Numbers to Remember:
6: Consecutive seasons with at least 300 laps led.

2,499: Laps led in Newgarden's IndyCar career.

46.018: Percent of Newgarden's laps led at Iowa (1,150 laps).

0: Races at Iowa in 2021.

1,088: Laps led in his career at the 14 tracks on the 2021 IndyCar schedule.

Newgarden is going to be a top five championship driver. He is likely going to be push for another championship. The guy is coming off completing every lap in a season for crying out loud. No one should be concerned about Newgarden's future and what he will do this season. 

If he wins the championship, great and historic, because he will have tied Rick Mears with three IndyCar titles, the most for a Penske driver. If he doesn't, it will likely because Scott Dixon was slightly better or Newgarden had one poor race more than he should have. 

There are chances for growth this season. Look at the numbers above. He has been Iowa-dependent for the last five years of his IndyCar career. He would still have two championships if Iowa wasn't on the calendar those years, but he will no longer have his midseason, Midwestern pick-me-up race to swing his season. His oval results are satisfactory. He has been in the top five the last two years in the Indianapolis 500 and he has five top ten finishes in his last six Indianapolis starts. He has won at Texas and Gateway. He will be fine, but he could always count on Iowa and I wonder if that could throw off his game if he has a slight slump heading into summer. 

I don't think he will lead fewer than 300 laps for the first time since 2014. Iowa helped in that category. No one has been close to Newgarden in his consistency of laps led. He is going to win fewer races on ovals because there will be fewer oval races. He has won two oval races in each of the last two seasons. It is possible he could go two-for-four, but I doubt it. 

What does Newgarden need to do in 2021?

Lead at least 200 laps with at least 100 of those coming on road/street courses.

Win at a track he hasn't won at before.

Be the top Penske driver.

Scott McLaughlin - #3 PPG Chevrolet
McLaughlin tested at Austin in February ahead of the 2020 season. His debut was scheduled for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May and he was going to make a handful of starts over the year, splitting his time with his Supercars program in Australia.

However, the pandemic scuttled those plans. McLaughlin remained in Australia and he won his third consecutive Supercars championship, winning 13 of 27 races, standing on the podium for 21 races and he finished in the top five 23 times.

With the Supercars season ending at Bathurst in the middle of October, it allowed McLaughlin to come to America for the St. Petersburg finale. Practice was encouraging, but he ended up qualifying 21st and contact with Rinus VeeKay took McLaughlin out of the race. He ended up 22nd, but the deal was set for McLaughlin to become a full-time IndyCar driver in 2021.

Numbers to Remember:
48: Victories with Team Penske, currently ranked third all-time behind Brad Keselowski (66) and Mark Donohue (59).

5: McLaughlin is five starts away from becoming the second-most experienced New Zealander in IndyCar history.

3: Championships with Team Penske, tied with Rick Mears for second-most in the history of the organization.

6: Mark Donohue's record of six championships with Team Penske (Three Trans-Am, two United States Road Racing Championships, one Can-Am).

After seeing McLaughlin contest a race last year at St. Petersburg, I think a lot of people have adjusted their expectations accordingly. There is plenty of reasons for optimism, but to think McLaughlin will come in and immediately fight to be one of the top Penske drivers is crass. 

There are going to be days where he looks fantastic and will steal the show. There will also be days where he will be lost and trying to punch upward. I think there will be more good days than bad, but the entire schedule will be new for him. He will be learning the tire compounds and he will be learning oval racing as a whole. His year will seesaw up and down, and that is how his rookie season should go. Let's not forget, McLaughlin is coming from a low downforce, touring car series and he hasn't run single-seaters in about a decade, which were Formula Fords. He's still yet to run an oval.

He is not coming to IndyCar with catalogs of open-wheel racing experience. The fact he has been as strong as he has been in testing is outstanding. He is only 27 years old. I think he is young enough that some of his driving patterns aren't fully grown in and he can learn an IndyCar, but he will still be learning. He will pick up a lot, but there will be times where he will try and rely on muscle memory from a different discipline and it will not work out. He will be able to learn from those times. 

I think because of how his season will likely yo-yo up and down, he is more likely to end up outside of the championship top ten than inside of it, even with Team Penske, but if he were to have a season that mirrored Jack Harvey's 2020 season, that is worth celebrating. I think he will have one or two races where he is on the podium or fighting hard for the podium, but I also think there will be four or five races that get the better of him. 

What does McLaughlin need to do in 2021?

Complete as many laps as possible. 

Shoot for at least six top ten finishes with at least one of those being on an oval. 

Qualify to the second round at least eight times and make the Fast Six at least twice. 

Be the top finishing Penske driver at least once in a race. 

Will Power - #12 Verizon Chevrolet
It was a rough start to 2020 for Power, as a botched pit stop cost him time at Texas and he would have to settle for 13th, one-lap down. He won pole position for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and started strong, leading 28 of the first 38 laps, but was caught out when Oliver Askew spun off the final corner and had to stop under yellow when many leaders had already made a pit stop. Power fought back but stalled on his final pit stop. He ended up 20th, the final car on the lead lap.

Power was positioned for victory in the first Road America race, but lost out to Scott Dixon and had to take second. Power and Hunter-Reay made contact on the start of race two and then Power made contact with Rahal later on that first lap. He was sent to the back and would finish 11th. Power was third on the grid for the first Iowa race, but a loose front left tire ended his night. He was runner-up in a Penske 1-2 in the second Iowa race and it provided a slight boost of confidence.

Team Penske had an irritating Indianapolis 500 and Power was mediocre, starting 22nd and finishing 14th. Gateway started on the right note with Power on pole position and leading the first 61 laps. He lost two spots on the first round of pit stops and a cut tire late knocked him two laps down and 17th in the final results. He recovered to finish third in race two but expressed anything but satisfaction with that result.

Power finally got his first career victory at Mid-Ohio in a smackdown, leading 66 of 75 laps from pole position. A spin in qualifying knocked him back to 17th on the grid for race two, but he rallied to finish seventh. He was sixth in the first Harvest Grand Prix race and then led every lap from pole position in the second race, holding off an aggressive Colton Herta. Power picked up another pole position for the St. Petersburg finale, but he was quickly off pace when a downshifting issue quickly put him in trouble. Then he hit the barrier exiting turn three after 35 laps, the first driver to begin the 2020-21 offseason. 

Numbers to Remember:
14: Consecutive seasons with a victory, the second-longest streak in IndyCar history.

12: Consecutive seasons with at least 100 laps led.

5: Pole positions away from tying Mario Andretti's all-time record of 67 pole positions.

7: Seasons with at least five pole positions in 15 full seasons. 

9: Of Power's 12 pole positions in the universal aero kit-era have come on road/street courses.

2: Power was the top Penske finisher only twice in 2020, his two victories.

Power has established a pattern ever since he won his only championship in 2014:

Win a few races and have just as many catastrophically crushing retirements, but counter those with a few more podium finishes.

Every year I feel like I am writing that the one thing standing in Power's way of a second championship are mechanical gremlins. In 2014, he finished every race and completed all but one lap with the only blemish being at Houston. Since 2014, he has had at least three retirements in four of the last six seasons. He has finished off the lead lap in at least four races in all of those seasons with Power having five finishes off the lead lap in at least four of those years. 

Most of these failures aren't Power's fault. He has his share of spins, but some of the broken driveshafts and electrical bugs he has no control over. He has led at least 200 laps in five of the last six seasons. His average starting position has never been over six in that time. He is doing everything right for that second championship, but then he is the Penske driver with a clutch burning out or a spark plug burning out. 

One thing Power can control is his temper and last year there were a few races he spoke out and I don't think many other Penske drivers would have gotten away with it. It was frustration that bordered on public criticism of the team. Power is not biting the hand that feeds him, but there was a sense of dissatisfaction that you don't get from drivers who want to stay with a team. 

Power is not going anywhere. I think his record allows him to express that frustration a little more explicitly than others. He is still going to come back and work on a solution, not look to abandon ship. But a slightly more positive attitude could go a long way and could get him over that hump. 

He is going to win a handful of races, stand on the podium a half-dozen times and win four or five pole positions, but he has to limit the number of crappy races. All drivers are going to have one or two bad days, but he cannot afford to have five or six for another season.

What does Power need to do in 2021?

Finish in the top ten in at least 14 races. 

Finish better than his starting position at least five times. That sounds low, but he only finished better than his starting position three times in 2020. He did start on the front row six times, which makes it tough, but he did start five races outside one of the first two rows. 

Finish every race he starts on pole position in the top ten. 

Simon Pagenaud - #22 Menard's/DXC Technology Chevrolet
The year opened with a runner-up finish at Texas for Pagenaud after spending much of the race in the top five, but not really in contention for the victory. He started 20th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but an aggressive three-stop strategy saw Pagenaud take a third-place finish. 

After an anonymous Road America weekend, his Iowa weekend started on the sour note when fuel pressure issues kept him from qualifying and forced him to start last for both races. Pagenaud's team put him on another aggressive strategy. Combined with the caution laps, Pagenaud ended up in control of the race late and he led the final 73 laps to take his first victory of the season. The next night, he went from 23rd to fourth and he was 49 points off Dixon for the championship lead. 

Pagenaud would hit a slump for the rest of summer. He was never a threat at Indianapolis, finishing 22nd, two laps down. He was caught in the accident at the start of Gateway. While he was able to complete 67 laps, the damage was too much and retired in 19th. Like most drivers in that race one accident, Pagenaud did not recover in race two and was 16th. He spun early in the first Mid-Ohio race and could only manage 18th. He stopped the bleeding in race two, finishing sixth, the top Chevrolet finisher. 

Another race at the IMS road course saw him starting at the rear, but he could not work the strategy magic in the first Harvest Grand Prix race and had to settle for 16th. He could only manage tenth in the second Harvest Grand Prix race and he closed out the season with a sixth in St. Petersburg.

Numbers to Remember:
15.928: Average starting position in 2020, his worst average starting position as a full-time driver.

10.571: Average finish position in 2020, his second worst as a full-time drivers ahead of only 10.625 in 2015.

1: Time Pagenaud was the best Penske starter in 2020 (second Mid-Ohio race).

Pagenaud is not in trouble, but 2020 was a different level of disappointment. Ever since he has joined Penske, Pagenaud has an off year on a regular basis. His first year with Penske he was 11th in the championship. The first year with the universal aero kit he did not win a race and only led 31 laps. In the pandemic-affected season, his averaging starting position was 15.9, his worst by far in a full season. 

However, Pagenaud bounces back. He won the championship in his second year with Penske with five victories and over 400 laps led. In year two of the universal aero kit, he won three races, including the Indianapolis 500 and was second in the championship. 

Even his bad years aren't that bad. He didn't win a race in 2018 but he still was sixth in the championship, ended the season with ten consecutive top ten finishes and he had 14 top ten finishes from 17 races. He won a race last year despite his starting average. He was eighth in the championship and never really came close to Newgarden or even Power for that matter and Power had plenty of results dragging down his points total. 

As long as Pagenaud is with Team Penske, he is going to be in the championship top ten and mostly like be closer to the top five of the championship than tenth. He is going to win races. He is going to finish in the top ten and complete a lot of laps. The one concern is you can never tell if Pagenaud is going to be stuck running between fourth and seventh or if he will have the pace to lead the field. 

What does Pagenaud need to do in 2021?

Lower his average starting position below ten. 

Lead a lap in at least eight races with at least five of those being road/street courses. He only led in two races last year and led zero laps on road/street courses.

Avoid a four-race slump without a top ten finish.

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season will begin on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park. NBC will have coverage of the season opener.