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.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”