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Penske vs. Ganassi: IndyCar’s championship showdown

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In August, Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather fought in what many dubbed “the fight of the year.” While Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) expects to have far fewer punches thrown, the battle for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship will be no less intense.

At the top, three drivers from Team Penske (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud) and one driver from Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon), IndyCar’s two powerhouse goliaths, will fight it out in a largely winner-take-all outing. Will Power, the fourth Penske driver and the 2014 champion, is not to be forgotten either, but at 68 points out of the lead in fifth place entering the weekend (now 69 after Newgarden won the pole), he would need a lot of help to take his second IndyCar title.

Regardless, the 2017 IndyCar champion will come from either Penske’s or Ganassi’s operation, for the fifth straight season.

And yet, despite having all four of its drivers against Ganassi’s one in the title decider, history suggests it’s Ganassi who may have the upper hand – even if on pace this weekend, Penske has had the edge.

Since leaving CART to join what is now the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2002, Penske has claimed three championships: 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.), 2014 (Will Power), and 2016 (Simon Pagenaud). In that same time period, Ganassi has seven: 2003 and 2008 with Dixon, 2009 through 2011 with Dario Franchitti, and 2013 and 2015, again with Dixon.

Further, dating back to 1996, the first year Ganassi’s operation claimed a major American open wheel championship (that year’s CART PPG Indy Car World Series title), Ganassi has 11 overall IndyCar championships compared to Penske’s five.

Recent history further supports Ganassi’s possible advantage. All four of Dixon’s championships have seen him beat Penske drivers, among others, to do so – Castroneves and Gil de Ferran in 2003, Castroneves again in 2008 and 2013, and Castroneves, Power, and Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015.

Further, Dario Franchitti’s run of three straight championships from 2009-2011 also came at the expense of Penske. Franchitti used fuel strategy in 2009 win the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and claim the championship over Penske driver Ryan Briscoe (and Franchitti’s own teammate Scott Dixon). The next two years, Franchitti got the better of Power to take the crown in each season.

Conversely, Penske’s two most recent IndyCar championships came in intra-team battles, with Power beating Castroneves in 2014 and Pagenaud beating Power in 2016 (of note: Pagenaud was mathematically alive entering the 2014 finale at Auto Club Speedway, driving for what is now Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, but was not a factor in the title-deciding race).

Team Penske president Tim Cindric discussed as much in a teleconference earlier this week, and revealed that fighting Dixon for a championship is always a tall task.

“I think if it wasn’t Scott Dixon, I would say that our odds are really good,” he said of Team Penske’s chances of overcoming Ganassi and Dixon for this year’s title.

“When you look at the fact that Scott has been there, done that, executed really more than all of our guys combined, I would have to do the math, but he’s been the guy to beat when it comes to championships.”

Cindric and Penske have been witness to Dixon overtaking their drivers to a win a championship before. In 2015, Penske drivers Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya made contact, sending Power into a spin and damaging Montoya’s front wing. While they rebounded to finish sixth (Montoya) and seventh (Power), Dixon took the race win and claimed the championship from Montoya on a tiebreaker (he had three wins, the most of anyone that year, to Montoya’s two).

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 30: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the Verizon IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on August 30, 2015 in Sonoma, California. Dixon clinched the championship with his win. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Another wrinkle in the Penske team’s plan is points leader Josef Newgarden taking part in his first championship battle as a big player. Given Newgarden’s misfortune at Watkins Glen, one might assume the added pressure makes things all the more difficult.

Cindric, who now serves as the lead strategist on Newgarden’s No. 2 entry, explained that it is critical to continuity with a driver who is entering his first true championship fight.

“I think the approach with (Josef): I don’t know how else to say it, but business as usual. You try and go through each session and build on the last session. It’s just typically what he responds to. If things don’t work out well, and we don’t end up toward the front, the guy’s really, really good at making the most out of a situation.”

On the other side, Mike Hull, managing director at Chip Ganassi Racing, is aiming to keep his objectives entering the weekend as simple as possible, and the math suggests things are very simple. If Dixon, only three points back of Newgarden, wins the race, he wins the championship.

“Certainly the easiest way to win the championship is to win the race. But I think that you accept what’s given to you on, in this case, race day at Sonoma,” Hull asserted in a teleconference. “We’re going to race to win. If we can’t win, we’re going to finish second. If we can’t finish second, we’re going to finish third. That’s how we’ve always raced here. We’re going to just stay after it.”

Of course, the numbers game between the teams is something Hull could not ignore. It can be easy to think that Penske’s four cars all still having a title chance gives them advantage, however Ganassi has three other drivers (Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Max Chilton) who could play supporting roles to Dixon.

In the end, though, Hull revealed that he hopes this facet does not prove to be significant.

“Certainly we think about it. But I think we race our race. And we have good teammates here at Chip Ganassi Racing. They pull for each other. And they race clean, they race fair. I think at the end of the day that’s how you’re judged. I would hope that everybody that races in this race will be judged as a result of racing in a very fair and a manner that’s driven by integrity,” Hull asserted.

As mentioned, Penske’s Newgarden led Ganassi’s DIxon by three points (560-557) entering the weekend, but increased that gap to four by capturing the pole. Castroneves now sits 23 points back in third, with Pagenaud 35 back in fourth, and Power 69 points out of the lead in fifth.

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Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

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