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.

Lowdon, Booth bid farewell to Manor in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Manor Marussia Team Principal John Booth and Manor Marussia President and Sporting Director Graeme Lowdon arrive in the paddock before final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth both bid emotional farewells to Manor Marussia Formula 1 Team in Abu Dhabi on Sunday after resigning from their roles last month.

Lowdon and Booth were instrumental in the formation of Virgin Racing in 2010, which ultimately evolved to become Marussia F1 Team.

When Marussia collapsed financially in 2014, Lowdon and Booth managed to keep the team going and revive it as Manor for the new season, securing its place on the grid.

However, following disagreements with team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick over the future of the team, both Lowdon and Booth tendered their resignations, with today’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marking the final race in their roles.

“This is of course my final race with the Manor Marussia F1 Team,” Booth said.

“At a time like this, there is so much to say but I think the single biggest sentiment I will take away is incredible pride at just how much we punched above our weight for such a small team.

“It was a greater challenge than we ever anticipated, but six years on we are still here fighting.

“I wish the team every success in the future and I will be following their progress with a great deal of satisfaction at what we created together.”

Lowdon took to Twitter to thank the Manor team, but left the door on F1 open by only saying goodbye ‘for now’.

Manor’s final race of the year ended with another double finish as Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi finished 18th and 19th respectively. After the race, both drivers paid tribute to their outgoing bosses.

“I would like to thank everyone in the team for their support, but in particular John and Graeme, who we say goodbye to here today,” Stevens said.

Merhi added: “I would like to thank the whole team, not only for this opportunity but for the hard work throughout the season. We’ve had some difficult times, but I am very proud of us.

“My thanks also to John and Graeme and I wish them well for the future. I am sure we have not seen the last of them!”

Alonso: I will be racing in 2016, “that’s 100%”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda arrives in the paddock before final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso has once again rejected speculation claiming he could take a sabbatical from Formula 1 in 2016, telling NBCSN that he will be racing next year.

Alonso saw a miserable first year back at McLaren come to a disappointing end in Abu Dhabi on Sunday as he finished 17th, two laps down on race winner Nico Rosberg.

Deficiencies with the Honda power unit used by McLaren have blighted Alonso’s efforts all season long, prompting a number of outbursts that continued in Abu Dhabi when he threatened to retire the car.

The Spaniard finished the season with just 11 points to his name, marking his worst F1 campaign since his debut year with Minardi back in 2001.

Earlier in the race weekend, it was suggested that Alonso could take a year out of F1 if McLaren and Honda were unable to provide him a competitive car for next year.

Alonso denied such speculation on Saturday, and confirmed to NBCSN after the race on Sunday that he would definitely be racing in 2016.

“No, I will be racing. That’s 100%,” Alonso said when asked if he would be taking a sabbatical.

“If I had to choose a sabbatical, I would choose this [year]! I was here, I was pushing, I was giving my maximum, and I will always do.”

Alonso spent the entirety of his race in Abu Dhabi alone at the back of the field after a first lap collision with Pastor Maldonado and a penalty for his part in it.

“Being last with no battles all the race, it was pretty much alone,” Alonso said.

“We say always that there are some test races for us, but today it was more than ever a test because I was alone all the race.

“Hopefully we got some useful information for winter to develop the car but it was a very difficult race from the start.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi GP post-race (VIDEO)

xxxx during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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The final round of the 2015 Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi may not have had a great deal riding on it with both championships already decided, but with the foundations already being laid for the new year, there were a number of storylines running throughout an eventual race at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Nico Rosberg managed to see off a late challenge from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to pick up his sixth win of the year and, for the first time in his F1 career, a third in a row.

The German driver controlled proceedings from start to finish, while Hamilton was forced to settle for P2 once again ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

For the final time in 2015, Will Buxton brings you all of the news, interviews and insight following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Grosjean delighted to sign off from Lotus with points

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus is pushed onto the grid by his team before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean was delighted to end his long-running association with Lotus by picking up two points for ninth place in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Grosjean started back in 19th place after being hit with a gearbox penalty on Sunday morning, but managed to fight his way through the order to stand on the brink of the top ten in the closing stages.

With fresher tires, the Frenchman battled past Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat to move up into ninth place, securing two points for Lotus in his final grand prix for the team.

The result also ensured that Grosjean finished the year 11th in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship ahead of his move to Haas F1 Team for 2016.

“It’s been an emotional journey for me and I’m so happy to be able to reward everyone at Enstone with points in my final race for the team,” Grosjean said.

“I had to push all the way and it wasn’t always plain sailing as there was a lot to manage on the car. The calls from the pit wall were great and my pit stops were fantastic.

“I owe a lot to this team and it really feels like a family to me. I hope to be back one day in the future. This has been the best season of my career.”

Teammate Pastor Maldonado’s race ended at the first corner after he was crashed into by Fernando Alonso, leaving him with terminal suspension damage.

“It’s sad to end the race in the first corner because we were looking good for the race,” Maldonado said. “Today we had a good strategy to go with our better race pace, but anyway this is racing and it can happen.

“I didn’t see the contact I just felt it in the back of the car from Fernando. I tried to restart but then I saw the suspension damage. Imagine if that incident had been the other way round, it would’ve been big news then!”