AJ Allmendinger

Penske’s pair highlights those who just missed a top five in Indy

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Behind the top five finishers, Team Penske fell short of its first Indianapolis 500 since 2006 even though two of its drivers had a good shot in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

All three Penske pilots led the race, and AJ Allmendinger had the chance to make an off-sequence strategy play dividends as the race evolved. Allmendinger ended seventh, one spot behind teammate Helio Castroneves, and ultimately for both drivers it was a case of what could have been.

Allmendinger, in particular, identified a few first-time Indy deficiencies that he thought hurt him.

“The first issue I was sissy on the start. That might have been worst Indy 500 start ever,” he said. “I went from like fifth to 20th in one lap. But once I calmed down and thought about what I needed to do to get around these guys, the IZOD Chevy was just a missile.”

The Los Gatos, Calif. native made several drives through the field and was in a good position before his seatbelt came loose and he needed a stop on lap 113 to fix it. From there he still had two more planned stops to go, but ultimately would cycle in the 20s and come up after pitting 10-12 laps earlier than the leaders.

Castroneves, meanwhile, seemed relatively happy with sixth – even though he hadn’t had a great race.

“It was very nice; a lot of people behaved, so it was great,” he said. “The race actually went really fast. I was just having issues with the (rev) limiter. We finished top six, which is great championship-wise for points, and that is what we are looking for, as well.”

Simon Pagenaud and Charlie Kimball – who were each in Milwaukee earlier this week for the nationwide media tour of drivers – ended right behind the Penske pair in eighth and ninth. Pagenaud backed up his thoughts about how strong his No. 77 HP Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports Honda was in race trim, while Kimball rallied a day after missing the public driver’s meeting due to sickness. As the Californian described it, it was a better day in the car than out of it.

“I’m not dehydrated but I’m definitely not 100 percent,” said Kimball. “I still have a lot of rebuilding to do. Luckily the car was pretty good, even despite an electronics issue. It took us a few laps to diagnose it but we got it fixed. Then we drove through the field and past our teammates; I think we had a top-five with another 15 or 20 laps.”

Polesitter Ed Carpenter struggled to 10th with a car that fell off in the second half of the race. He had been in the top-five throughout the first 100 laps, and still managed to lead the most laps with 37.

“We were a little conservative early and didn’t have the right amount of downforce compared to some guys, and that did us in the end,” Carpenter said. “But overall, I’m very happy for the team and the month we had.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.