Team Penske find themselves in familiar territory coming in to the 2017 Verizon IndyCar season finale at Sonoma. The big question is not whether they can take back-to-back championships. It is whether they will make the same mistakes that cost them the IndyCar title back in 2015.
Picture the scene
Coming in to the final race of the season Team Penske are in the cat bird seat for the Verizon IndyCar championship. One driver leads the point standings while another two are legitimate contenders for the title.
The fourth is still mathematically in contention and their main competition comes in the form of a lone Chip Ganassi Racing entry for Scott Dixon.
It should because not only is it the setting for the climax to the 2017 Verizon IndyCar season, it is almost identical to the conclusion of the season 2 years ago.
For Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015, read Josef Newgarden this season. For title contenders Castroneves and Power in 2015, read Castroneves and Pagenaud in 2017 with the Frenchman and Will Power trading places as the mathematical long-shot.
Those of you familiar with IndyCar will of course know that Team Penske – to mangle a well-known idiom – ‘snatched defeat from the jaws of victory’ in 2015. They left California with nothing as Dixon and Ganassi snuck through to an unexpected win. And it was all of their own doing.
Team Penske: literally tripping over themselves
The circumstances of Dixon’s fourth IndyCar title came about because of the mistakes made by Penske. Chiefly due to Juan Montoya and Will Power colliding mid race.
Taking nothing away from the Kiwi, his shot at the title only came about because Roger Penske’s operation literally tripped over themselves. Therefore what can (and should) Penske learn from 2015 and do differently this time around?
Accept it – Will Power is out of contention
The gimmicky, NASCAR-esque double points finale says otherwise of course but in reality, Will Power is not going to take his second IndyCar championship.
Mathematically the Aussie can still win the Astor Cup. However in such a competitive series as IndyCar the permutations required to make it happen are highly remote.
A scenario whereby Newgarden, Dixon, Castroneves and Pagenaud all score next to no points and Power romps home is so remote it is close to a given that it will not happen.
The failure to back their best hope
In 2015, despite Montoya clearly being their best hope for the championship, Penske allowed all of their drivers to race for the title. An admirable decision but one that must have haunted them for weeks and months afterward.
This time around the starting point for a successful season finale would be to make it clear to Power that it is a case of ‘better luck next time’. The last thing they need is Will Power throwing caution to the wind and driving with a ‘win or bust’ mentality.
Go with the odds
IndyCar racing at Sonoma is typically processional and light on full course cautions. Therefore qualifying should be a good indicator of the pace of the title protagonists on race day. Unlike 2015, this year Penske would be wise to use that as a guide to race strategy.
Penske had 3 drivers – Power, Montoya and Pagenaud – qualifying ahead of title rivals Dixon and Graham Rahal in 2015. It should have been a straightforward race but disintegrated as Power and Montoya collided whilst squabbling for position. Resulting pit stops put them back to 23rd and 22nd places respectively, wrecking both their chances.
Depending upon qualifying results Penske may once again come to regret not laying out some form of game plan. Otherwise there is every possibility of their drivers hindering each others’ races whilst Dixon quietly goes about doing what he does best: running clean, fast and under the radar.
Do not write-off the rest of the Ganassi squad
All is not well in the Chip Ganassi Racing stable. Disagreements and arguments have spilled out in to the open from behind closed doors, even being broadcast across team radio at the recent race at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Tony Kanaan will leave the team after Sonoma and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are very likely to follow him out the door.
Disharmony should in theory be music to Team Penske’s ears assuming Kanaan, Kimball and Chilton have no motivation to help Dixon secure a fifth IndyCar title. That is a risky assumption to make.
They might not want to help Dixon but they all want to score big
Whilst the 3 soon-to-be ex-Ganassi drivers probably have little enthusiasm to get Dixon another title, they all need a big final race of this 2017 IndyCar season. And that could cause problems for Penske in attempting to out score Dixon.
Kimball needs a clean race to quieten the growing chorus of disapproval around his driving style. Plus he needs to prove that in the face of a (rumored) drop in sponsorship backing, he is still worth whatever cash he is trying to secure for 2018.
Kanaan is hinting that Honda want to keep him in one of their cars but still needs to show that this year has been a blip and not age finally catching up with him. Meanwhile Chilton will need to show well. Paddock talk suggests he will tie up with Carlin Racing as the team debut in IndyCar next season and will be keen to make a case to any additional backers needed.
Whilst it might be a push to expect any of them to actively support Dixon, all of them need good points finishes. The more drivers who want that, the less room for error that leaves Penske.
A fan’s perspective
Neutral IndyCar fans will be hoping Team Penske have not learned anything from 2015. Or choose to stick with their ethos of letting their drivers race. Either option would add further intrigue to what is set to be another nail-biting IndyCar season finale.
But if they do and lose another championship, they will only have themselves to blame.