ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – With a victory Sunday in its 2019 season opener, Roger Penske’s IndyCar team staved off extinction.
“I think the sports car (team) is getting dropped now,” Will Power deadpanned.
No, the IMSA team – the only arm of Team Penske’s auto racing juggernaut that is “winless” this season (through one race) – won’t be shuttered if it fails to take the checkered flag in the 12 Hours of Sebring next weekend (on the NBC Sports App, CNBC and NBCSN).
But Josef Newgarden’s triumph in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg continued an incredible roll across two continents, myriad states and four diverse series. Over a seven-day span, Team Penske notched two wins in the Australian Supercars series and wins in the NASCAR Cup Series (with Joey Logano) and IndyCar.
“It adds a level of intensity, because you see everyone else in the organization,” Newgarden said. “They are all doing well. You don’t want to be the one group that’s not doing well. At the same time, if we weren’t doing well, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
“We’re going to yo-yo up and down from a performance standpoint within our organization, but you don’t want to be that one group that’s falling behind. It’s across the board. Whatever Penske puts their efforts in, they are going to make the most of it.”
With the Cup team having won eight of the past 16 races (and nearly getting a victory Sunday from pole-sitter Ryan Blaney to back up consecutive wins by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano), it’s obvious what is meant when racing icon Roger Penske and his top lieutenants talk about a positive type of pressure-packed expectations permeating its mammoth shop in Mooresville, N.C., that houses the IMSA, NASCAR and IndyCar teams.
“It’s always great to have so much success on the track, especially to start the season,” Penske said. “We’ve had a strong start with our NASCAR program and locking Brad and Joey into the playoffs. And getting two early wins with our Supercars program and the new Mustang has been great for our group in Australia.
“Now to come (to St. Petersburg) and have a pole with Will, sweep the front row and win the race with Josef is a great way to start our season on the INDYCAR side with Chevrolet. Next week, we will be at Sebring and try to get our ACURA Team Penske program in victory lane in the historic 12 hours race.
“But we need to keep looking out the windshield. The competition in all these series is strong and they will keep improving. So we need to keep pushing. There is a long season ahead of us.”
It was a busy offseason of personnel shuffling at Team Penske, which lost cornerstone executive Clive Howell to retirement after a four-decade career. The team promoted Ron Ruzewski to managing director, Kyle Moyer to general manager of IndyCar and Jon Bouslog IMSA general manager.
The IndyCar team also went to work on improving its performances on road and street courses, where it trailed the Hondas of Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport last year.
Before winning the pole Saturday at St. Pete, Power cracked that Penske had told him, “Start packing your bags, Power. You’re not strong enough”, but the elite road and street racer wasn’t joking about being at a deficit on those circuits in 2018.
“That was where we suffered the most last year,” he said. “We have a different package (in 2019). Really interested to see where we stack up.”
Both Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud, whose Penske Chevrolet was seventh Sunday, said street courses such as St. Pete had been pinpointed by the team over the winter as the most important area of improvement (Power brought Penske his 17th Indy 500 win in 2018 as the team had speed on ovals).
“We worked really closely, the three of us drivers, with our engineers to improve the race cars in the offseason,” Pagenaud said. “It was really awesome, the teamwork that went into it. Team Penske is so humble about it. With that many wins and championships to rethink what they’re doing and to go forward with no contentiousness. It’s cool to be part of that.”
Penske said he feels the camaraderie often while walking through his shop these days. A month ago, Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin and a contingent from Down Under spent a few days building relationsphips with their North Carolina brethren.
“It’s amazing,” said the 82-year-old team owner dubbed “The Captain”. “I walk in, and the first thing the NASCAR guys say is, ‘That’s great what they did in Australia.’ We bring these guys all together. When you’re in the different series, and we’re trying to have the best people we can, we moved a lot of people over from IndyCar to sports cars to back, and we’ll continue to do that. One of the best young guys now doing strategy (on IMSA) was a strategist for me on Helio’s Indy car. He’s doing a hell of a job down there now. So these are the things we’re trying to do.”
It builds a “healthy” rivalry, team president Tim Cindric said. “The IndyCar guys showed up this weekend, and our drivers were like it’s up to us now,” he said. “It spurs them on with that they can’t get too comfortable.”
A recent phone call with Penske, though, reminded Newgarden that’s more about being supportive for the future than worrying about keeping pace with past results.
“We talked about the NASCAR guys,” Newgarden said. “He was really pumped up about where they’re at. For Roger, his mind just goes to where are we going to be at. If we don’t have what we need, we need to get it.
“He’s just a racer and wants to be good across the board.”