Roger Penske

Team Penske on verge of ending 8-year IndyCar title drought

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I’m not sure whether Roger Penske, or his right-hand man Tim Cindric, has Etta James’ “At Last” in their iTunes library.

But that may well be the song that would best describe the end to an eight-year title drought if Team Penske does, as it’s very likely to do, capture the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.

Going back 20 years, Penske swept through the 1994 IndyCar season with a top-three sweep of the championship, led by Al Unser Jr.

The following year began a six-year title drought, dating until the year 2000, when Penske performed a radical team shakeup.

Gone were Unser Jr., Penske chassis, Mercedes engines and Goodyear tires; in were Gil de Ferran and his then-unheralded Brazilian countryman Helio Castroneves (who began the year with a hyphen in his surname), Reynard chassis, Honda engines and Firestone tires.

De Ferran ended Penske’s title drought in a year when 11 different drivers won races during the CART season and no less than eight drivers still had a mathematical chance at the title in the final two races.

If this all sounds like déjà vu, as we head into the 2014 season finale, it’s because it basically is.

De Ferran’s place in the role of star-who-would-be-but-hasn’t-been-champion-yet is Will Power, who since joining Penske full-time in 2010 (and part-time in 2009) has long been IndyCar’s fastest but never its finest driver.

Castroneves completes his 15th season with Penske this weekend and 17th overall, still in search of his elusive first title.

Juan Pablo Montoya has arrived back on the scene – for the first time since 2000 – and added a third set of valuable data and an invaluable presence on track.

In 2014, we’ve had 10 different race winners. We are guaranteed a first-time series champion with Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the last two champs, set to be mathematically eliminated once Power takes the green flag Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

All the stars are aligning for Penske to end its run without a title since 2006, and it would take a minor miracle for Simon Pagenaud and Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports, 81 points back of Power, to pull it off.

As my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada noted earlier this week, and I’ve noticed all season from the season opener in St. Petersburg, Power has been in a much better mental state most of if not all the season.

He’s overcome a mid-season run of penalties that threatened to destroy his title chances yet again; he’s also officially conquered ovals, and put to rest any notion that these aren’t in his wheelhouse.

Castroneves has done enough, once again, to be in title contention heading into the finale. He’s not entering Fontana in great form at the moment – four consecutive finishes outside the top-10 have cost him 79 points and turned him from 28 up to 51 down to his teammate.

Still, he’s smart and savvy enough to remain focused and committed in a 500-miler, and he will factor into the win.

The Penske pair made their championship charge early this year with three wins in the first seven races, and they’ve stayed atop the points heap despite their rivals’ challenges.

Meanwhile the Chip Ganassi Racing team – by its illustrious standards – stumbled out of the gates while adapting to an engine change and two of its four drivers also changing. Additionally, Andretti Autosport had the opposite season trajectory, with a fast start and a roller coaster second half with more downs than ups.

It’s been Penske that’s stayed consistent, yet fast, all season. Heading into Fontana, Penske has led 938 of 2,145 laps this season – a staggering 43.72 percent – between Power (615), Castroneves (241) and Juan Pablo Montoya (82).

Ganassi has the second-most laps led this season… with 440, less than half that.

The three Penske teammates have made 12 Firestone Fast Six appearances (Power 6, Castroneves 5, Montoya 1). Andretti, with four drivers, made only one more (13).

And outside of a handful of rough qualifying weekends, the three Penske teammates have given themselves less of a hassle on race days, with solid qualifying performances. Castroneves has an average grid position of 6.0, Power 7.7 this year.

All told, this has been the year where minimal outside influences have conspired to knock Penske down, and the team has been the class of the field in an intensely competitive season.

It’s time “The Captain” is rewarded with another IndyCar championship, because either Power or Castroneves has done enough to earn it.

Tony Kanaan woos IMS after positng fastest Carb Day lap

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Tony Kanaan of Brazil, driver of the #10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet 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)
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“I think this track will pick the winner,” Tony Kanaan told reporters Friday after Carb Day practice was completed for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“So I’m trying to massage the track a little bit, talk to her nicely, and then see if she will pick me on Sunday.”

Kanaan certainly impressed the 2.5-mile ‘lady’ in practice, by posting a fastest lap of 226.280 mph that would seem to have her shunning all other suitors. Carlos Munoz set the second-fastest speed, but he was nearly a quarter of a second per lap slower with a speed of 224.772 mph.

Speeds were largely dependent on tows in the final tune-up for Sunday’s race.

All 33 drivers who qualified for the 100th running of the Indy 500 tried their dead-level best to impress the track. They raced side-by-side through the corners and filled the course with cars. For most of the session, a majority of the drivers were on course at the same time, and that surprised many.

“You should have asked me, I would have told you different,” Kanaan said.

“This is the closest we get to the race, two days, and after being here for almost a month, the engineers come up with different plans every day,” Kanaan added. “The more time you give them, the more they come up with stuff. And we had almost five days without being on track, so they go back to the shop and do simulations. So we had to test.”

Race conditions will be markedly different than what everyone faced in qualification and that is another reason so many cars were on track. It is also one reason Kanaan was so pleased with his time.

If a full field had not practiced, no one would truly know what they would face on Sunday. “Everybody is eager to feel how the car behaves in traffic. So it was a race out there today.”

Kanaan was pleased with the response he got from Indy.

“I’m happy with my car,” Kanaan said. “Obviously I have to pass 17 people before I get really happy with my car. But, you know, after the struggle in qualifying, we really focused on the race.”

Kanaan will start 18th, alongside Juan Pablo Montoya and close behind some other top-ranked drivers.

“One thing that eases my mind a little bit being back there, there are a lot of good guys back there with me,” Kanaan added. “You know, if you look around Montoya, Charlie Kimball, Scott Dixon, they’re very experienced guys back there, which sometimes it’s not the case.”

“So I really don’t have a plan. My plan is to start the race. If there is a gap, I’m going to go for it.”

Indy occasionally rewards spontaneity, so Kanaan’s fastest speed in final practice may be a strong indication of his odds of winning his second Indy 500. His first victory came in 2013.

Follow: @FantasyRace

When Townsend Bell and Mario Andretti made pizza (VIDEO)

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Before the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil kicks off on Sunday, Townsend Bell and Mario Andretti tossed around a couple pizzas.

Bell, the NBCSN IndyCar analyst who starts fourth in the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda, has easily his best shot to win the Indy 500 in his 10th attempt.

He’s part of the five-car Andretti Autosport armada along with Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi.

Stoneman edges Jones in closest finish ever at IMS in Freedom 100 (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – No words other than “wow” to summarize the immediate aftermath of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

At a race that had two incredible photo finishes in 2013 and 2014, another one occurred Friday with Dean Stoneman edging Ed Jones by just 0.0024 of a second.

“As you can see on the screen now it was bloody close,” Stoneman said from Victory Lane after driving the No. 27 Stellrecht Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Andretti Autosport.

It’s the closest finish in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history with Stoneman having led the field to the green on the last lap, but lost the lead at Turn 1 when Jones around the outside, before Stoneman got past him through Turn 3 and stayed ahead.

The Andretti Autosport driver then edged the Carlin driver at the line, fist in the air for his second win at IMS in three weeks, after also winning on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

“It’s great. I was in a hospital bed five years ago dreaming to be racing here and winning now,” Stoneman added.

“First [win] ever here for this race,” said Michael Andretti, car owner. “We’re so excited. We’ve been trying so many years to win this and Dean finally brought it to us.”

“It’s so frustrating to lose the race like that,” said second-place finisher Jones. “We were back and forth throughout the race and all the time I was waiting behind Dean for those last few laps. He held up everyone really slowly on that restart and caught quite a few incidents.”

“I got the lead in turn one and I thought I had the good run and I was pulling away but he had the draft down the back straight and I made the decision to stay on the inside,” Jones added, “He got the momentum on the outside and he just beat me to the line. It was so close and the team did a fantastic job of giving me the car to win the race.”

“That minor mistake just cost me everything.”

Previous closest finishes were 0.0026 of 2013 when Peter Dempsey won, and 0.005 of a second when Gabby Chaves won.

In third place, Dalton Kellett scored a career-best result in the No. 28 K-LINE car for Andretti Autosport, with Shelby Blackstock and Scott Hargrove completing the top five finishers.

F1 still Maldonado’s ‘Plan A’ as he chases race comeback

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 18:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus drives during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 18, 2015 in Singapore.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Pastor Maldonado remains hopeful of returning to a Formula 1 race seat in the future, but is open to other series if his “Plan A” fails to come to fruition.

Maldonado lost his drive with Renault over the winter when his backing from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA fell through.

Since then, the one-time grand prix winner has completed some private testing for tire supplier Pirelli, but is keen to make a racing return next season if possible.

“We will try again and try to be back in a good team, to give me the chance to be competitive,” Maldonado told Reuters in Monaco.

“Plan A is Formula 1. Then of course if it doesn’t come, we need to look around.”

Despite the financial and social problems facing Venezuela right now, Maldonado hopes that PDVSA can find the funding to resume his F1 career.

“PDVSA is a big company, supporting a lot of sport programmes in Venezuela,” Maldonado said.

“They still seem to maintain all the programmes. Hopefully it will be no problem to have them back.

“I am the only Venezuelan who is racing at this level. I have been supported since many, many years. The relationships are very good. Hopefully we can be together for more years.

“Of course the oil price is still a bit low, and when the oil is down, the country is down. For sure it’s painful at the moment.”