Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves

Respect drives Penske-Ganassi rivalry – but is that enough?

Leave a comment

Open-wheel racing’s preeminent rivalry is not fueled by bitterness, but by mutual respect.

Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing have continually challenged each other for glory in the form of race wins and series championships, and in doing so, they have set themselves apart as two of the most successful squads in the history of the sport.

But instead of having their constant struggle for supremacy be tinged by acrimony, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi’s groups have, by and large, kept things gentlemanly.

Oh, rest assured that they definitely want to beat each other. And there have been the inevitable occasional flare-ups – in fact, the most recent ones came just this past summer with TCGR’s Scott Dixon and Penske’s Will Power involved in twin incidents at Sonoma and then again at Baltimore.

But for the two teams, it all comes back to admiration for their collective ability to contend week in and week out.

“That’s what drives us, to be honest about it, and I think that’s what drives us to be with them race in and race out, wheel to wheel, every weekend, because that’s the measure,” TCGR managing director Mike Hull said during an IndyCar teleconference on Tuesday in advance of Saturday night’s season-ending MAV TV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

“There are other teams that we race against that do the same job, but what you have to do is you have to create a mindset that you’re going to do the job season in and season out, and that’s what we saw in Penske Racing when we tried to form the organization that we formed.”

In another sign of cordiality, Penske team president Tim Cindric then proceeded to thank Hull for those comments before noting how both teams “have the resources and the ability to attract the best people” and set themselves apart from the rest in the paddock.

“I think that’s the mindset that both groups have, is that second isn’t good enough, and that’s what you need,” Cindric said. “But the difference really is the people that I think both groups have and the continuity that we have with not only our sponsors but our people.

“The people certainly make the difference because they’re the ones that really execute on race day or they don’t.  But I think the reason why we’re all involved in it really is just the passion we have for the sport.”

Together, the two teams have become the major forces in the IZOD IndyCar Series, winning a combined 60 of 84 races over the last five years. Additionally, they have earned a combined six series championships since 2003; Ganassi has five, Penske has one.

And after Saturday, the Penske/Ganassi bloc will have added a seventh crown over the last decade. Dixon and Penske’s three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves are the last men standing, with Dixon holding a 25-point lead going into the final race of 2013; a finish of fifth or better at ACS will seal the deal for him.

So, Penske vs. Ganassi is, once again, the title fight. One could think that such a repeated occurrence could lead to a sense of ennui between the teams.

Not so.

“Mike and I have both been on teams that don’t run up at the front, and it just seems so far away,” Cindric explained. “You know, it just seems so difficult to get there, and when you are there, sometimes you get somewhat immune to it and you catch yourself maybe thinking, ‘Hey, is this really worth it or is this really what I signed up to do?'”

“And that thought goes away pretty quickly, because you realize what it’s like to be on the other side of it, and I guess I call it the real world and our world. Once you’ve lived in our world, you really don’t want to go back to the real world.”

No real hatred. No lingering ill will. And, from their perspective, no boredom from locking horns all the time. Emphasizing on-track competition, the Penske-Ganassi rivalry should be considered as one that stacks up nicely against its analogues from the stick-and-ball side of things.

And yet, to many fans within the IndyCar base, the two teams are despised. Perhaps we can blame that on their aforementioned collective dominance. Nobody likes it when somebody wins too often, after all. Ask Jeff Gordon or Sebastian Vettel.

These followers must have taken great delight in seeing how this season began with six different winners in the first seven races. None of those winners came from the Penske or Ganassi teams, and we’ll admit, that was quite intriguing to see.

However, the pendulum has swung back. In the last 11 races, eight have been won by Penske or Ganassi drivers. During this stretch, Dixon’s chalked up four wins (three of them in succession at Pocono and the Toronto doubleheader), Power’s grabbed two (Sonoma and Houston Race 2), and Castroneves and Ganassi’s third pilot, Charlie Kimball, have each scored one.

But when you push aside the supposed “winning too much” aspect for a moment, something else emerges. In an age where controversy often propels the news cycle and gets people talking and Tweeting, the overall sensibility of the Penske-Ganassi rivalry can be taken by some as being out of step with the times and not buzz-worthy.

And if IndyCar needs anything right now, it’s buzz. The title hype going into this weekend is certainly there for all of us who follow the sport but is there a huge, national anticipation for Saturday’s 500-miler in Southern California? I think we know the answer all too clearly.

Neither Penske nor Ganassi will ever apologize for how they go about their business, and they shouldn’t. For many years, they’ve been setting the standard and that’s going to remain their focus.

Still, the fact remains that IndyCar sorely lacks the lightning rod personalities that will get more people to pay attention to the series, whether they love or loathe them. They’ll get one next year when Juan Pablo Montoya returns to open-wheel as part of Team Penske, but one man won’t do the job alone.

In a perfect world, IndyCar’s tremendous racing would speak louder than anything else, and Penske and Ganassi’s relatively clean rivalry would be endlessly praised. But this is not a perfect world…Is it?

Tony Kanaan had a blast despite finishing 100th Indy 500 in fourth

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

He wasn’t in winning contention until late after starting 18th, but after back-to-back DNFs from accidents the last two years, fourth was almost a welcome tonic for Tony Kanaan and the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I had a blast,” he said post-race. “I had the time of my life.”

Kanaan was one of the favorites to win, after setting the fastest lap in final practice for the race with a speed of 226.280 mph. It was clear the Ganassi team had made enough strides to his car on race setup to pull it off.

“When you have a good car all day and you’re fighting for the lead you cannot say it wasn’t fun,” Kanaan added.

Kanaan was still running fast at the end of the race, but rookie winner Alexander Rossi’s fuel mileage strategy made the difference in victory.

Among the top five drivers, Kanaan posted the fastest last lap with a speed of 220.294 mph. On fumes, Rossi was running 179.784 mph. Kanaan pitted with eight laps remaining in the race.

“Obviously toward the end there it got a little messy with where we were going to finish. We had to pit; this is racing.”

Hinchcliffe ends Indy 500 seventh, doubts victory was possible

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

James Hinchcliffe felt content with his run to seventh in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil despite starting from pole and remaining in the lead group of cars for much of the race.

Hinchcliffe spent much of the first stint of the race exchanging the lead back and forth with Ryan Hunter-Reay, but a fuel issue cost him time at the opening round of pit stops in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver battled his way back into contention for the win, only to suffer a loss in grip in the closing stages as temperatures rose at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A late splash-and-dash for fuel with four laps to go ended Hinchcliffe’s hopes of a famous victory, just over one year on from his devastating accident, leaving him to settle for P7 at the checkered flag.

“I have to give everybody on the Arrow crew a ton of credit for the effort the entire month,” Hinchcliffe said after the race.

“Coming in third at the GP of Indy, qualifying on the pole and the race here, it was a solid effort.

“We were super strong the first half and definitely had one of the cars to beat. It was really just track temperatures that caught us out there.

“We started losing grip as the temperatures came up late in the afternoon and the last two stints were a real struggle when we tried to make the tires last. Well, more than a stint because we came in for that splash of fuel at the end.

“A couple guys out there took a punt on fuel – congrats to Alex [Rossi, race winner] and great to see Honda back on top.

“Realistically, I think we had a third or fourth place effort today, which is nothing to turn your nose up at.”

Combined with the points for pole position, the ‘500 has seen Hinchcliffe rise from eighth to fifth in the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers’ championship, ranking as the lead Honda driver on 205 points.

Third in Indy 500 a bitter pill to swallow for Newgarden, ECR

during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – This month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was generally accepted that Josef Newgarden and the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing was best of the “Bowtie brigade.”

And the 25-year-old American was ready to unleash a full serving of awesome sauce on the field in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil starting from second on the grid.

But despite running in the top three to five all day and leading 14 total laps – including Laps 179 to 181, 184 to 190 and 192 to 193 – Newgarden was one of most of the field who needed a late-race splash for fuel inside the final 10 laps.

It meant that Newgarden, along with runner-up Carlos Munoz, fell back behind rookie Alexander Rossi once Rossi’s Bryan Herta/Michael Andretti combo pack pulled off a strategic stunner to perfection and ran 36 laps on the final stint.

For Newgarden, third was his best career Indianapolis 500 result in five starts.

Yet in many ways, it was the worst feeling: a crushing disappointment knowing his first best chance to win this most prestigious of races had slipped away.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s really heartbreaking, to be honest,” he said in the post-race press conference. “The reason is because I think we had a car to win. I’m not saying we should have won the race definitely because we had the best car, I just think we had a car that could have won.

“What I wanted was an opportunity to try to race those guys at the end. We didn’t get that. That’s no fault to my guys. I think that’s just how the race fell. Sometimes it doesn’t fall your way. Today was a day it didn’t fall our way.”

Newgarden admitted that he was underwhelmed by the fuel conservation finish that allowed Rossi to pull it off. That being said, he said had he been in Rossi’s shoes, he’d have been OK with the outcome.

“I think if I was in Alex’s position, I’d be the happiest man in the world right now. I wouldn’t care how we won the damn race. We won the damn race. So that’s one part of it,” he acknowledged.

The thing was though, a Newgarden and Munoz shootout likely would have been a better show for the fans rather than the somewhat anticlimactic final lap. And again, that’s with no disrespect to what the No. 98 team achieved.

“Congratulations to Rossi and Honda. It’s a huge achievement to win around here,” he said, graciously, in defeat. “I just wish we had an opportunity to race those guys straight up at the end. I really think we would have had something for them if we could have gone flat out there at the end and tried to beat them straight up.

“Just proud to be here, though. Shoot, just having an opportunity to be here with as good of a car as I did, not many people experience that. Today was something new to me.”

Newgarden described his would-have-been strategy had it come down to a he-and-Munoz shootout.

Sort of.

“To be honest, I was going to wing it at the end,” he explained. “My priority was staying up front, going flat out, trying to get as much speed out of the car at the end of the race as possible. I thought we had to trim this thing to win it. We had a lot of downforce at the beginning. We tried to trim and trim and trim. My sole focus was, Let’s get to the last three, five laps and be up front, then I’ll do whatever I got to do at the end to win the thing.

“That kind of sounds silly. Well, didn’t you have a plan? Weren’t you thinking of a plan the whole race? I was. I was sticking to my priority of ‘Let’s get this car up front, the keep it there for the last five laps’. When we’re up there, we’re going to have a great shot at winning the thing.

“Really, you can’t predict what’s going to happen at the end of the race. I could see how Carlos was, I could see where he was good, where he was bad. I think he had a little bit more straight speed than us, which was going to be difficult to overcome. I was going to wing it on those last three to five laps and kind of feel out what I had to do to try to beat him, if he was the guy I had to actually race at the end.”

For Newgarden though, long regarded as America’s brightest IndyCar hope the last five years and on the heels of his best month ever at the Speedway, this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

He’s had some heartaches in his IndyCar career before – Long Beach and Mid-Ohio losses in 2014 come immediately to mind – but nothing like this.

“I don’t think I have a pity card to play. You could probably go through the list of guys that have nearly won this thing or that should have won the thing,” he said.

“This is really the first time I’ve ever felt like I could have won that race and it just didn’t happen. It’s really the first time I’ve ever felt that way.

“So it’s tough. I hope I have more opportunities to try to win it. You kind of feel special when you have a car that you think you can win and you got a shot to win the thing at the end. That’s kind of rare to get that opportunity and be in that spot.

“I’m thankful for that. I can’t be sour about it, like I said. There’s been a lot of guys that have had near misses around this place. It’s going to suck, but…

“The good thing is we race again next weekend. That kind of helps. I don’t have to go on the media tour, which I guess is a positive. I would have loved to do it if I won the race. I can rest a little bit now and go to Detroit and try to kick everyone’s ass again. That’s positive.”

Until he pit for fuel, Carlos Munoz ‘knew’ he had Indy 500 won

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Carlos Munoz of Columbia, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Carlos Munoz was sure of three things throughout Sunday.

The first – the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was going to be his.

“I knew I had this won,” Munoz told ABC’s Rick DeBruhl after the race.

But the 24-year-old Colombian didn’t make this declaration as the 70th winner of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Andretti Herta Autosport driver was lamenting the second runner-up finish of his career in the race.

“My car was flying,” Munoz said of his No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda that had started fifth and was leading on Lap 195 of the race. “I was so good emotionally, physically, mentally. The car was flying.”

The second?

“I knew I didn’t have enough fuel.”

Munoz was a half-lap short on fuel and on Lap 196 pitted in order to rectify his situation. That move created the 54th and final lead change of the race, allowing rookie Alexander Rossi, and Munoz’ teammate, to assume the lead.

Rossi hadn’t pitted since Lap 164 and he wouldn’t in the last four laps.

When Munoz got back up to pace two laps later, he was in second, 16.68 seconds behind Rossi. A lap later, with the white flag displayed over the first sold-out crowd in the “500’s” history, Munoz had only gained three seconds.

“I was just cruising around flat out, saying ‘I’m not going to lift, this is my race,'” Munoz told ABC, later recalling in his post-race press conference, “‘I’m going to keep it flat. If I crash, I crash. I don’t want second; I want to win.'”

When Rossi entered Turn 3 for the final time, with his No. 98 NAPA Honda running on fumes and hope, Munoz was still a straightaway behind him.

Munoz was within 4.5 seconds of Rossi when he saw the American become the 70th different winner of the Indianapolis 500.

And he was still bemused by the fact it happened.

“I don’t know how my teammate did it without stopping. If I’m honest, I want to know what he did. I will look. I am second, why he’s not stopping? He’s supposed to stop. I have to look and see what he did. I don’t know what he did,” Munoz admitted.

“This is the 500, everything can happen. Now we’re second,” he said

The third thing Munoz was sure of Sunday is that won’t be the case in the future.

“One thing is clear, that I will win the 500 one day.”