The strong get stronger as Pagenaud secures life-changing Penske IndyCar chance

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Give Robin Miller credit – the NBCSN insider posted a story on RACER.com a couple weeks ago that based on his sourcing and process of elimination that Simon Pagenaud going to a top Verizon IndyCar Series team meant he was going to either Penske or Ganassi.

And he wasn’t going to Ganassi.

Prior to that, I checked with both teams regarding their 2014 driver status leading into 2015. A Team Penske representative confirmed to me the return of all three of their drivers, and two Ganassi sources confirmed all four cars… not necessarily all four drivers.

And then there was Pagenaud himself. For the first time in three years, his reaction to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at Auto Club Speedway was one of “it’s time to leave” rather than “it’s time to stay.”

A quote from the post-race press conference told me all I needed to hear that he was good as gone.

“It’s been an incredible three years with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports,” he said. When asked if he had any decision or update on his own future, he said, “Not yet, but soon. Within two weeks.”

The timing is right for Pagenaud to move. He’s quickly proven in three years that he is a tier one, elite IndyCar driver – all that is currently missing from his resume is an oval win, but he doesn’t get the “hey, he’s not good on ovals” tag that was perhaps incorrectly applied to Will Power.

Now, though, he’ll enter under that microscope a little closer. Because with great talent comes a great opportunity, and now great responsibility.

Pagenaud is in fact joining Team Penske, as Power’s teammate. The two rivals are under the same roof, to create that instant storyline.

Yes, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya are there to to make for a four-car power team – one that now equals the efforts assembled by Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

The strong have gotten even stronger. And frankly, it’s a scary prospect for the rest of the field.

Power, Castroneves and Montoya were already three of the top four finishers this past season, and Pagenaud fell to fifth after that disastrous Fontana finale.

If you had to look at the respective team breakdowns, you’d have to rank Penske’s quartet of Power, Pagenaud, Castroneves and Montoya ahead of Ganassi’s (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Charlie Kimball) and Andretti’s (Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz) in terms of overall strength and depth.

The disconcerting aspect of this news – if there is one – is that the number of cars from the three “power teams” is up to 12.

This makes it that much harder for all the remaining teams – 2014 race-winning outfits Schmidt, CFH, KV, Coyne and on down the line – to achieve those big results on a consistent basis.

It’s a concern Ed Carpenter, now co-owner of the merged CFH Racing, addressed to me in an interview last month.

“It’s easy for the bigger teams to get stronger,” he said. “They’re drawn to the bigger programs. It is something we’ve talked about, where new owners are coming from or getting previous ones back involved.

“I’ve kind of started to wonder if IndyCar does something like NASCAR did at one point, and put a cap on number of cars per team. You want to lend itself to make it for a Keith Wiggins or a Dennis Reinbold to come back.

“If Penske goes to four, of if Andretti or Ganassi goes beyond four, I don’t know that’s the best thing for the sport for the sport as a whole.”

The stakes are raised, though, as a result of this news. The strong have gotten stronger, and the fight at the top will become even more intense given the drivers now under Penske’s umbrella.

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?