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Team Penske sweeps top 10 in two series; Will Power third at Sonoma

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Sunday was a good day to be named Roger Penske.

Team Penske scored its 500th win as an organization.

They placed five of six IndyCar and Cup drivers in inside the top five – with one other narrowly missing in eighth.

Penske finished the IndyCar season with three drivers in the top six in points. In the Cup series, Brad Keselowski became the first driver to lock into Round 2 of the playoffs.

Yeah, “the Captain” had a command performance.

A little after the start of the Grand Prix of Sonoma, Keselowski won the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to give Penske his 500th organizational win – one week after he won the first ever Brickyard 400 for Penske.

Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney finished fourth and fifth at Las Vegas respectively.

One state over in California, Will Power led the IndyCar contingent by finishing third in the Grand Prix of Sonoma.

“I think if we would have started farther up front, we would have had a chance to win,” Power said after the race. “It was a good year though. Roger got his 500th win today. We won the Indy 500. We won the 200th IndyCar race for Team Penske. We won the Brickyard 400. Just couldn’t get the championship here. But overall, it was a good year for Team Penske.”

Winning the 500 is not only enough to make a season successful, it can make a career for both drivers and owners. Power’s 2018 victory marked the 17th time that Penske won that race.

It didn’t end there, however. Power’s Indy 500 win was part of a sweep Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. He also won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis two weeks early. Power added a third win for Penske in 2018 at Gateway.

Power entered Sonoma with a mathematical opportunity to win the championship, but that faded midway through the race and he finished third in the points behind Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi.

Right behind Power, Simon Pagenaud finished fourth in the race and sixth in the standings.

“It was a good day: definitely competitive, we definitely unlocked a lot of secrets,” Pagenaud said. “I think we cracked the code this weekend on the car and what I needed so we were much more competitive that we’ve been on the road course and it felt good. It felt fun.”

And while Pagenaud did not add to Penske’s win total in 2018, he came close with runner-up finishes on the oval of Texas in June and the street course in Toronto in July.

“I found my smile back, so that is a good thing,” Pagenaud told NBCSN after the race. “I’m really excited for next year; I’m already thinking for next year. … I think it’s in these kind of situations you learn the most and you come back stronger.”

Josef Newgarden was the only Penske driver who failed to finish in the top five Sunday. He crossed under the checkers eighth and finished fifth in the standings.

If not for one bobble in the pits, Newgarden might have given Penske a perfect sweep of the top five.

“It really all started with the first pit stop,” Newgarden said. “We just had a mistake in trying to get out and I stalled it. It kind of ruined the whole day from that point there on. It was tough to recover after that. I think we had a lot of potential today and we could have contended for the win, but it was too hard to come back.

“It was a great season and a lot of great moments for the whole team and myself.”

In his quest for 500 wins this year, Newgarden gave Penske three. These came at Phoenix and Barber Motorsports Park early in the season and at Elkhart Lake just past the midpoint.

“We’ll double down for next year,” the 2017 champion Newgarden said after the race. “We’ll try to take that number one plate back.”

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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”