Friday, January 14, 2022

2022 IndyCar Team Preview: Team Penske

The second 2022 IndyCar Team Preview is another one of IndyCar's "Big Three" teams. Team Penske did not take home the championship and it did not win the Indianapolis 500, the second consecutive season the team took home neither piece of silverware. It was a rather tame season by Penske standards and only one driver finished in the top five in the championship, the fewest for the team since 2011.

Penske is retaining three drivers for 2022, but it is downsizing to three cars. Josef Newgarden is leading the way and he is coming off finishing runner-up in the championship for the second consecutive season. Will Power won a race for a 15th consecutive season, but he also had his worst championship finish as a full-time driver since 2008. Scott McLaughlin became the first Team Penske driver to win IndyCar Rookie of the Year. While there are still two past champions in the team, it feels like Penske is going through a transition.

2021 Team Penske Review
Wins: 3 (Mid-Ohio, August IMS road course race, Gateway)
Poles: 5 (Belle Isle II, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Gateway, Long Beach)
Championship Finishes: 2nd (Josef Newgarden), 8th (Simon Pagenaud), 9th (Will Power), 14th (Scott McLaughlin)

Josef Newgarden - #2 Hitachi Chevrolet
The 2021 season had an unexpected start for Newgarden, he spun on the opening lap at Barber. The spin took out Newgarden and a few other drivers, but Newgarden's first race was over before he had even completed a lap.

Newgarden fought back with a runner-up at St. Petersburg and then was sixth in the first Texas race despite notable contact with Sébastien Bourdais. He closed out the Texas weekend with another runner-up finish. His month of May began with a fourth-place finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but his Indianapolis 500 was difficult, as was a common theme for Team Penske in 2021. Newgarden was mostly in the middle of the field and finished 12th. 

Belle Isle started with a tenth, but he on pole position for the second Belle Isle race, and dominated. A mistake on tire selection put him on the less ideal compound for the final stint. Colton Herta was chasing Newgarden down, but a few late caution kept Newgarden in the lead. It did allow Patricio O'Ward back into the race and with three laps to go O'Ward took the lead and eventually the victory. Newgarden dropped back to finish second. 

In the next race, Newgarden was again on pole position at Road America, and he led of the most laps again. There was another late caution, but this time Newgarden had gearbox issues at the restart with two laps to go and lost the lead to Álex Palou. Palou took the victory, while Newgarden limped home in 21st. 

After a pair of late defeats, Newgarden mastered Mid-Ohio, leading the most laps from pole position. He was tenth in his home race in Nashville after a qualifying accident was a setback. He ran eighth in the second IMS road course race before winning at Gateway, his third victory on the oval. Newgarden closed the season with finishes of fifth, seventh and second at Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach respectively, lifting him to second in the final championship standings.

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

6: Consecutive top five championship finishes.

22: Newgarden became the 22nd driver with at least 20 IndyCar victories last year.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Something like his first two championship seasons. At least four victories, at least one on a road course, street course and oval. Along with those victories, he will regularly be on the podium and in the top five. He will be in the top ten for nearly every race and he will complete almost every lap. 

In that oval race victory, he will likely lead 85% of the laps and again have north of 400 laps led in a season. Qualifying results will be good, but he will not necessarily win a lot of pole positions. In all likelihood, one of his victories will come from seventh starting position. Mechanical issues will be nonexistent. 

Newgarden will be the clear Team Penske leader and he will likely enter the finale with the championship lead, only needing to finish eighth or better to secure the title. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Every year is a possible championship season for Newgarden. He is still getting started with Team Penske, as he only turned 31 years old in December. He has been first or second in the championship in four of his five seasons with Penske. In the last two seasons, he has been there but had one or two results you can point at where the championship swung away from him. 

Seeing as how he already has two championships with Penske, and he has 17 victories in the last five seasons, six more than the next two drivers in that time frame, Newgarden wants to be the next Penske driver to win the Indianapolis 500. This year will be his 11th Indianapolis 500 start, and he only had three top five finishes in the race. Last year was one of Penske's worst at Indianapolis in a long time. Newgarden would like to be the guy to lead the team's revival in 2022. 

Newgarden is eventually going to have a down season. There is a good chance 2022 could be that season. Newgarden's engineer Gavin Ward left Penske for Arrow McLaren SP at the start of the year. Penske will figure it out but after numerous successful seasons together, 2022 will be a shock to the system. 

Engineer aside, nobody leads the number of laps Newgarden has been leading and winning at the rate he has been at forever. But that season will be an anomaly, and it will still be a good season in comparison to the average IndyCar driver. I don't expect a fall off from Newgarden. He will still be at the front. 

Scott McLaughlin - #3 PPG Chevrolet
The New Zealander's rookie season began with respectable results of 14th and 11th at Barber and St. Petersburg respectively. 

McLaughlin's fourth career start was his first oval outing at Texas. It was an impressive race and in the closing laps McLaughlin was up to second behind Scott Dixon. McLaughlin kept his countryman honest and picked up his first career podium finish. McLaughlin backed it up the next day finishing eighth before finishing eighth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. 

In the Indianapolis 500, McLaughlin was the top Penske qualifier, and he ran well only to have a pit lane speeding penalty cost him a possible top ten finish and leave him in 20th. It was the start of a rough patch for McLaughlin. He would finish outside the top ten in seven consecutive races. 

Gateway was where things turned around and with the help of a caution, he ended up fighting for a top five result, ending up fourth. A ninth would follow at Portland and his season would end with finishes of 12th and 11th in the California races. 

Numbers to Remember:
3: Top ten finishes in four oval starts.

8.5: Average finish on ovals.

14.583: Average finish on road/street courses.

14: McLaughlin was 14th in the 2021 championship, the worst finish for a Penske regular since Al Unser, Jr. was 21st in the 1999 CART championship.

What does a championship season look like for him?
A McLaughlin championship will be built off strong oval race success, likely needing at least two victories, a top five finish in the Indianapolis 500 and top five finishes in four of the five races with all of his ovals ending with top ten results. 

Away from the ovals, McLaughlin improves on road and street courses, finishing in the top ten majority of the time with at least three or four top five finishes and at least one or two visits to the podium. In the races he does not finish inside the top ten, McLaughlin is running and finishing at least within the top fifteen. He also does not have a stretch longer than two races without a top ten finish.

Benefitting McLaughlin is no other driver standing out and winning many races. There are an abundance of winners and no one else cracks more than three victories. His main championship rivals all finish outside the top five in the Indianapolis and most of them actually finish outside the top ten, allowing McLaughlin to have a larger positive points swing in that one race. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Improvements, but not necessarily jumping into the top ten of the championship. 

McLaughlin had three top ten finishes from the first five races with a finish of 11th and 14th in the other two races. But he finished outside the top ten in the seven races that followed and five of those results were outside the top fifteen. His final four races of 2021 were nearly identical to his first five races. 

He can have a more balanced season and pick up a few more top ten results and possibly a few more top five finishes. There could be a road/street course race where he is on from the first practice session, spends every session in the top ten, makes the final round of qualifying and finishes in a top five position. I don't sense that would be a regular occurrence for McLaughlin in 2022 and he will still have a few tough weekends. 

There is also a chance his oval results dip. There is little margin for error when you were in the top ten of 75% of oval races the year before, and 75% is not an option in 2022. If he three top ten finishes again, that is a drop to 60%. If he gets the same number as 2021, his percentage increases to 80%. There are fine margins.

McLaughlin should be in the fight for a top ten championship finish. I don't expect a drop off. Anywhere between eighth and 14th in the championship would feel right. 

Will Power - #12 Verizon Chevrolet
Power opened the 2021 season with a runner-up finish at Barber and he followed it with an eighth-place finish in St. Petersburg. It was a good start, but a funk followed. 

In Texas, Power was 14th and 13th, and he ended up 11th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The Indianapolis 500 almost did not happen. Power struggled the most of the Penske drivers and at the end of the first qualifying day, Power was not in the top 30 and would have to participate in the Last Row Shootout on Sunday. On his Sunday qualifying run, Power brushed the wall exiting turn two on the final lap. Power completed the run, but his car was damaged and would not be able to make a second attempt. The good news is Power ended up 32nd and held on to make the field of 33. 

The race did not go much better. Power was a non-factor and he spun entering the pit lane late, taking him off the lead lap. He would end up finishing 30th, three laps down. 

Things looked to be going better in the next race at Belle Isle, and through all the chaos, Power was leading late, but Romain Grosjean's accident brought out a red flag with five laps to go. When the race was restarted, Power's car would not re-fire. After multiple attempts, the car was pulled from the line and the lead was lost. He ended up 20th and irate when the race was over. 

A sixth in the second Belle Isle race was barely a consolation, the same goes for third at Road America. A lap three spin at Mid-Ohio ended an encouraging day. He was 14th in Nashville. The good news was he found his form in the August IMS road course race and took his first victory of the season. He won his first pole position at Gateway and finished third. 

The season ended with lackluster results, a spin at Portland, a mechanical issue early at Laguna Seca and a tenth at Long Beach.

Numbers to Remember:
1: Pole position in 2021, the second time since joining Team Penske he has not had multiple pole positions in a season.

11: Power's 11-year top five championship finish streak was snapped in 2021 after finishing ninth.

12.438: Average finish in 2021, his worst as a Team Penske driver.

99: Laps led in 2021, the first time he has led less than 100 laps in a season since 2008.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Power is the baddest man on the planet. 

His qualifying form is exceptional. Power picks up at least six pole positions and he wins from at least three of those. Not to mention he wins at least two other times when not on pole position. He claims residency in the top five and there is a stretch where he is on the podium for at least five consecutive races. 

The mechanical gremlins cannot keep up with him. Every race occurs without a headache. A bad day is finishing eighth but that is also one of the few races he is not quite feeling it and not really fighting for a top five, but he isn't outside the top ten. There might be one really bad race, but that isn't because Power did something wrong. It could be a race where he was caught out on pit strategy or maybe gets the strategy wrong on tire compounds and finishes on the less desirable rubber. 

His oval results are just as good as his road and street course results, and at least one of his victories comes on an oval. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
At any point it feels like Power could turn it on and be the Will Power that we saw from 2010 through 2016. But it has been awhile since Power has been breathtaking over an entire season. It is not that he is losing it, but we know his mechanical woes and the number of race victories those have cost him. For a driver who lost plenty of races because of his own mistakes in the first half of his career, he has probably lost more from flukey mechanical problems in the last five years. 

We do have to acknowledge the drop in Power's form in 2021. He was ninth in the championship and had only one pole position and one victory. That lone victory didn't come until August. If it wasn't for the issues at Belle Isle, he would have had two victories and those extra 40 points would have had him seventh in the championship, still a drop but not as major as ninth. 

Power is going to win a few races and he is going to be quick in qualifying. He will get a few pole positions. However, he will struggle to beat Newgarden, and there is a clear number one at Penske. Power can get back into the top five of the championship, but for him to be a title contender he will need to be near flawless and not lose his cool, something we have seen more from him the last few years, a behavior unbefitting a Penske driver. A championship will require composure in 2022.

The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season begins on Sunday February 27 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBC's coverage will begin at noon ET.