Penske’s 50th anniversary season presents another shot at IndyCar glory

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The question for Team Penske anytime it heads into a Verizon IndyCar Series season isn’t whether it will win races or contend for a championship.

It’s rather how many races will it win in pursuit of the latest title, and what is now a quest for its 17th Indianapolis 500 victory.

This year is an important one for Penske, which, for all its success, heads into its 50th anniversary celebration but with only two season titles in IndyCar in the last 10 years since 2006.

Odds-wise, there’s a near certainty either Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams or Andretti Autosport will walk away with this year’s title. They’ll have 12 of the 21 full-time entries between them – four cars apiece – to combine for 57 percent of the field.

And they’ve won every IndyCar title between them since 2003, and all but three Indianapolis 500s since 2000 (KVSH Racing in 2013, Bryan Herta Autosport in 2011, Rahal Letterman Racing in 2004).

Of those respective quartets, Penske boasts on paper what is the strongest foursome, with Juan Pablo Montoya headlining having won both two Indianapolis 500s and a series title, Will Power with the 2014 title but no ‘500s, Helio Castroneves with his three ‘500 triumphs yet still without that elusive title, and Simon Pagenaud as the rising fourth act with several wins but none that are yet career-defining.

Success in the past means nothing for 2016, though.

As “The Captain,” Roger Penske – one of the few people in racing you ensure to call Mr. on first reference – said during a January phone interview with NBC Sports once he and Montoya received their Baby Borg Warner trophies, the next races are always the most important.

“We’ll start from the first race just like every other year,” Penske told NBC Sports.

“There’s always a lot of other noise to make it bigger and better. We can’t let our press clippings get in the way.”

Still, Penske feels Montoya – who came up just shy of the 2016 crown after a challenging Sonoma finale despite leading the points the first 15 races – will be even better this season in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“It was absolutely the right move,” Penske said of signing him once his NASCAR career ended after 2013. “He’s aggressive, but he’s a real team player.

“He cares a lot about the people working on that car. He’s fully dedicated, more dedicated than I thought he would be.

“He was also an individual to admit he’d been out six to seven years, and he needed to catch up. His first year was training time, and you saw what he was able to accomplish in 2015, and he’ll be a real force in 2016.”

Montoya, too, admits he needs to improve further in qualifying, despite an undoubted year one to year two growth last year.

“It was better, but I’m not there yet,” Montoya told NBC Sports last December at the Chevrolet Champion’s event outside Detroit. “There were very few times where I said, ‘Oh, I got that.’

“We need to do a better job, but we made a lot of Fast Six (sessions), and last year I only did one and it was like what the heck happened.

“It doesn’t matter (who’s in). If you made it, you’ll have a good starting position. Who cares who’s ahead? Either it drives really good, and you’ve got a shot at the pole, or it doesn’t.”

He’ll look to add a third Indianapolis 500 win to his resume, while Helio Castroneves will take his seventh shot at joining immortality as the fourth four-time winner.

For the driver who’s one of the best of his generation at Indianapolis, it’s weird that Castroneves’ last six finishes at Indy have been ninth, 17th, 10th, sixth, second and seventh.

He’ll return to the “Yelio Submarine” paint scheme with Pennzoil and Shell signage as he did in 2014 and the stars could align him to get him that last tenth he needs. Judging by his own preseason testing pace at Phoenix in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, to rule him out of his usual top-five points position and wins in the other 15 races would be a mistake.

The weird thing for Castroneves was that he went winless last year. The weird thing for Will Power, who reverts back to his standard No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet this year after having the champion’s No. 1 last year, was that he won only once.

Power jokingly replied to a Detroit Free Press question back in September that he’d want to have the title wrapped before the last race. In reality though, neither he nor anyone seems likely to do so this year, especially with double points again on offer at the finale.

A determined Power is a tough force to stop – and rest assured after last year’s up-and-down campaign he’ll look to return to the title-winning form he usually shows on an annual basis.

Pagenaud, the fourth driver in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet, is again the wild card. He needs to win, but his comfort level and chemistry seems better than it did last year. He can’t afford a second successive tough campaign in arguably the best equipment on the grid.

For Mr. Penske, “effort equals results.”

The question is whether the team’s across-the-board unquestioned effort will produce the best results in the still tightly packed field this year.