Team Penske’s 2022 resurgence could mean 1-2-3 sweep in IndyCar championship


MONTEREY, California – It has been three seasons since Team Penske has won either an Indianapolis 500 or an NTT IndyCar Series championship.

For this operation, that’s considered a slump.

With more than 200 race victories and 270 poles, 16 IndyCar championships and 18 Indy 500 victories, championships aren’t merely celebrated; they are expected at Team Penske.

In 2019, Simon Pagenaud won the Indy 500, and Josef Newgarden won the NTT IndyCar championship for Team Penske.

INDYCAR AT LAGUNA SECADetails, schedules for watching the season finale on NBC

In 2020 and 2021, Penske saw Chip Ganassi Racing claim the season championship. Scott Dixon of New Zealand won his sixth title in 2020, and Alex Palou of Spain captured the crown in 2021.

Both years, the runner-up was Newgarden.

Heading into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Team Penske can end both the slump and do something it hasn’t accomplished since the 1994 CART season.

Penske’s Will Power is the leader and hopes to win his second IndyCar championship this Sunday. Power, who won the 2014 IndyCar title, has a 20-point lead over teammate and two-time IndyCar Series champion Newgarden and six-time champion Dixon.

Penske’s third driver, Scott McLaughlin, is ranked fifth behind Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson. Coming off a win at Portland, McLaughlin is the long shot at 41 points behind teammate Power — but the second-year driver from New Zealand still could help ensure a 1-2-3 finish in the final standings (and is coming off the glow of a newly announced contract extension Wednesday).

The last time Team Penske swept the top three in the championship was 1994 when Al Unser, Jr. won eight of the 16 races including the Indianapolis 500 to win the CART title. Teammate Emerson Fittipaldi finished second with one win and the third Penske driver, Canada’s Paul Tracy, finished third with three wins including the final two.

Team Penske drivers won 12 of the 16 races on the 1994 CART schedule.

Team Penske INDYCAR Drivers And Riley Children's Foundation Celebrate National Nurses Week And Unveiling Of New Verizon Ultra Car
Scott McLaughlin, Will Power and Josef Newgarden have a chance to give Team Penske its first 1-2-3 finish in the championship standings since 1994 (Brian Ach/Getty Images for Verizon).

This year with one race remaining, Team Penske has won nine of the 16 races between Newgarden (five), Power (one) and McLaughlin (three).

“It would be great to finish with all of us in the top five, it would be nice if we were 1-2-3 ideally,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “We have good opportunities to win the championship outright. Getting one Penske car in that position is critical for all of us. We are working hard to bring fast cars to the track and then do the job on race day as always.

“Same story. Let’s put it all together.”

The key for Power has been consistency.

He finished third in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and never has fallen out of the top four of the standings. He took over the points lead after the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, dropped to fourth after the Indianapolis 500 and regained the lead when he won the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle.

Power dropped to third in the standings for less than 24 hours after the first of two races in the Hy-Vee IndyCar Doubleheader Weekend at Iowa Speedway when he finished third in the first race. He was back in second place the following day after finishing second in the race.

Power took over the top spot in the standings after finishing third in the Gallagher Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 30 and has held the No. 1 spot since.

In the process, the 41-year-old from Toowoomba, Australia has reinvented himself both mentally and physically.

Ten years ago, Power would have been so high-strung heading into the final race of the season, he would have made coffee nervous.

This year, for the most part, Power has been able to keep cool and calm.

AUTO: AUG 19 IndyCar - World Wide Technology Raceway
Consistency has been the key to Will Power leading the IndyCar points this season (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

“Just years of experience, honestly,” Power told NBC Sports. “I’m better than I was. Better than I’ve ever been. I’m definitely smarter and way smarter and way calmer than I’ve ever been. I’ve become too serious. I used to be way weirder. Now, I’m very serious, especially at the race track.”

If he finishes third or better at Monterey, Power clinches his second IndyCar championship.

“That’s very tough,” Power said of a top-three finish this weekend. “Ganassi has tested there. We’re in the best position and have the best shot. We’ll do everything we can.

“I look at the top four drivers as all equal. It’s going to come down to who finishes in front of who. It’s going to be a tough fight and so it should be. They are all really, really top-notch drivers. You will have earned it if you win the championship.

“I’m very focused on the task at hand. I understand it can go any way. I’m in the best form of my career. Mentally, I’m the best I’ve ever been and I’m extremely fit. I’m feeling good.”

In his two previous races at Laguna Seca, Power finished second in 2019, there was no race in 2020 because of COVID, and experienced spark plug issues in 2021 that doomed him to a 26th place finish.

Power does have some concern about the lack of grip on the track surface at Laguna and believes qualifying will be very important because it has traditionally been a difficult track to catch the leader of the race.

Power’s swiftest competition may come from his two teammate, Newgarden and McLaughlin.

“Always at Penske, you have tough teammates,” Power said. “I have to say, this is probably the best group of drivers that have been there, the toughest, which we really push each other along.

“Yeah, it’s a strong combination. As you can see in the championship, really the whole season, yeah, it shows what having drivers push each other does.”

Power is looking to win a championship one year after he finished ninth. That was the worst points finish in Power’s career in a season where he has competed in every race.

From 2010 to 2020, Power finished second four times, third twice, fourth once and fifth three times. During that 10-year span, Power never finished lower than fifth in the championship.

“It really was a bad year last year as far as luck, misfortune and oddball things happening,” Power said. “It really took a lot of us out of the mix. If I look at Portland in 2021, I got taken out last year in the first corner, spark plugs failed at Laguna. A lot of us had bad runs and Josef should have won more races last year.

“It has improved across the board, nothing in particular.

“We haven’t made a huge transformation this year. We haven’t. For Indy, we did a lot of work. The rest, it’s Penske kicking on all cylinders. We have the best pit crew and the best prepared cars, fast cars.

“We’re executing. That’s the big difference.”

Newgarden continues to maintain his level of excellence that he has displayed since he joined Team Penske and won the championship in 2017. He won another title in 2019 and finished the last two seasons second in the championship, but actually finished the year stronger than the champion in 2020 and 2021.

“I think we have been in the fight the last four or five years, in the fight, and we have maintained that” Newgarden said. “We’ve maintained our form. Consistency has been up and down at times. Some in our control and some out of our control. That’s been the deciding factor and that will determine the championship.

“Consistency is what is going to win the day. That’s the big piece that moves a little bit for us. I don’t know how Laguna is going to play out. We’re going to go and play to win. We’ll see what happens. We’re going to try to win that race and go for broke.”

AUTO: AUG 20 IndyCar - Bommarito Automotive Group 500
Josef Newgarden’s victory at World Wide Technology Raceway Gateway was his fifth of the season, a personal best (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

As for McLaughlin, after a less-than-spectacular rookie season, he won the first race of 2022 by winning the pole and claiming the victory at St. Petersburg, Florida on February 28. Two more wins later, and the former Australia SuperCars champion finds himself in his first IndyCar Series title fight.

“I think 2021 was a big kick in the butt for a lot of people and showed how tough this championship is now,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports. “It made Josef and Will think of what they needed to improve and become even stronger. Will is a new man. He is measured and calmer. Josef is the complete package. To have those two teammates have made me better and I’m driving better than I ever have my whole career. I put it down to the competitiveness between the three of us.

“I’m excited about that. Josef is the hardest teammate I’ve ever had in terms of pace and raw speed. But he makes me better and I make him better. I enjoy that.

“We won the rookie of the year, but it was disappointing to me because I didn’t think we were consistent enough. At the end of that year, something clicked with me from Nashville onwards. I felt really comfortable with the car, so I came into St. Pete this year with a heap of confidence.

“It was a huge weight off my shoulders when I won at St. Pete. I feel like a more complete driver this year and have really enjoyed that and had a lot of fun doing that. We’ve been fast enough to win the championship this year, but things haven’t gone our way.

“But we have made a really good stamp in through ground for years to come that our team can really move forward and fight for more championships in the 3 car for sure.”

Three drivers racing on the best team in the history of IndyCar are all three extremely motivated and driven. And like most successful athletes, they all believe they are the best and extremely competitive, even against each other.

When McLaughlin was passed by Newgarden on the final restart of the August 20 Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway, some squawked about “team orders” so that Newgarden could win the race and improve his place in the championship to just three points behind Power.

But Power is also teammates with Newgarden and McLaughlin.

When McLaughlin ran away from the field in last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland and never yielded to Power for position, it cost Power an additional 11 points in his championship lead.

2022 Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach
After a winless rookie season, Scott McLaughlin has three victories for Team Penske in his second season (Greg Doherty/Getty Images).

“I get it from the standpoint that Scott is in,” Power said. “I’ve been there, and you don’t want to give up a win.

“Yes, absolutely. I was on the radio asking for it.” asked McLaughlin about that immediately following the Portland race, and he gave a rather direct answer.

“We are all going to be wanting max points, but Will had the chance on Saturday to get pole, and he didn’t get it,” McLaughlin shot back. “He would have been able to lead from the front and get going like I did today, and he didn’t.

“For me, I just focused on what I needed to do and be strong. We just focus on ourselves and continue to be fast and up front.

“It sucks. We are very competitive We want to rip each other’s heads off. But there is going to be only one winner and two losers on the team and that is what happened today.

“We are coming in the longest shot with the least to lose so we can focus on that in some ways, try to have some fun in the last race and focus on that.”

Racing is racing, and at Team Penske, according to president Tim Cindric, team orders are not issued in IndyCar. It’s “Let the best driver win, just don’t take each other out.”

If anyone can speak for Team Penske’s resurgence, it’s Cindric.

He is the architect for all of Penske’s racing teams and calls the race strategy for Newgarden’s car. Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director Ron Ruzewski is the race strategist for Power, and Team Penske IndyCar Team Manager Kyle Moyer is the strategist for McLaughlin.

“From my standpoint, I don’t really look at it as a resurgence,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I think one of the differences is we had two cars last year where Simon Pagenaud was competitive at the start of the season, and then he wasn’t competitive the rest of the year. Then we had a rookie all year long.

“If you discount those guys, then look at Josef’s season last year. He finished second four times last year. We’ve turned those into wins. Will has really been much more consistent this year.

“If you look at the difference between Josef’s season this year and last year, it’s turning seconds into firsts. But Will has been night and day from a consistency standpoint to what he was last year. And Scott McLaughlin has come on to be a big contributor to the team. Last year, it was Josef and Will we were counting on to win and finish up front.”

Cindric believes the team has benefitted by reducing its fleet from four cars to three. Pagenaud left after last season for Meyer-Shank Racing, where he is reunited with former Team Penske driver and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.

Cindric emphasized that Team Penske still had Newgarden battling for the championship into the season finale the past two years.

“It’s not like all of our cars were seventh, eighth or ninth,” Cindric said. “I don’t look at last year as a complete mess. We had some bad days last year and we had a lot of seconds that could have been first. If we turned those seconds into first, it could have been a different race at the end of the year.

“As a team, we have gotten better. Our group has done a good job executing. We have a really good group. Simplifying three cars from four cars certainly helped. Three cars are going to be stronger than four cars.

“In our group, our expectation is all of our cars should have the capability to win.

“With the exception of Scott McLaughlin who has only been with us for two years, every driver that has driven for us the last 22 years has won the Indianapolis 500 or the championship or both except for one (Ryan Briscoe).

“I don’t think when you look at any of the other teams, nobody else is even close when you look at what their full-time driver lineups have achieved. It’s a different philosophy which sometimes becomes difficult in a championship hunt because we fight each other so much instead of having a clear-cut A driver, B driver or C driver.”

Watching from afar is the namesake of the team, who also happens to own the series. It’s been nearly three years since Roger Penske reached an agreement to buy Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar from the Hulman-George family.

Although he remains the team owner, Penske has had to distance himself from the competition side because he owns IndyCar.

If any of his three drivers win the 2022 IndyCar Series championship, it will be the first time that Penske won’t be on a timing stand.

“I downplay that a bit because I don’t think my role has really changed,” Cindric said. “I still see him as the same Roger Penske I always saw him as. My relationship with him is the same, he just happens to have a wing and wheels logo (for Indianapolis Motor Speedway) on his shirt of the race weekends.

“I miss the competition and having his head in the game Friday through Sunday, but it’s a benefit for IndyCar across the board that he is doing something different.

“It is a natural fit for him. When it looks really right is when he gives the command to start engines at the Indy 500. That’s pretty special.”

At 85, Penske remains active, but in some ways, time is catching up to the frenetic pace in which he’s lived a tremendous life.

Would this be a championship where Roger Penske could take the time to smell the roses?

“No,” Cindric said emphatically. “Roger is all about tomorrow.

“Yesterday is for somebody else to talk about and write about, but Roger is always about tomorrow. He always will be. He takes pride in the accomplishments of his teams and businesses and his family, but he’s not going to be the one that is idle.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500