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.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”