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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.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.