ICS: Penske Dominates, But Not Like People Thought

After Roger Penske’s drivers dominated the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in the Verizon IndyCar Series, speculation turned to a sweep of the series.

It may  not have been the most insightful thing to consider—a single team winning all 16 rounds of racing—but when Penske’s team of four drivers finished in the top 5, it was certainly relevant if for no other reason than a storyline. This was not KV Racing Technology taking the opener and wondering if the two-car team of Sebastien Bourdais and Stefano Coletti would sweep. This was the all-star Penske powerhouse with the early lead in the series and everyone else playing catch-up from then onward.

The top four qualifying positions on that first weekend of racing were held by Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, and 110 laps later, it was Montoya first, Power second, Castroneves fourth and Pagenaud fifth. Only Scott Dixon of the series’ other Chevrolet-powered powerhouse owned by Chip Ganassi prevented a 1-2-3-4 finish.

This was after a 2014 season in which the series championship went like this:  Power first, Castroneves, Montoya fourth and Pagenaud—driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports—fifth.

So clearly, concerns of utter domination in 2015 were legitimate.

James Hinchcliffe’s victory in the second round, the Grand Prix of Louisiana, laid to rest any idea that Penske would win every round, but didn’t really allay any fears that Penske would win everything that didn’t end in a fluke—in the case and good fortune of Hinchliffe—such as weather allowing the runners at back to finish up front after not being competitive all weekend.

Heading into Long Beach for Round 3, Bourdais was asked the question with the qualifier about “something goofy” happening.

The four-time champion from the Champ Car days said no way Penske could win everything.

And, fortunately for the series, he was right.

Through 10 races, there have been seven different winners. That means 30 percent of the field of 23 drivers have won this season. More than half of the series’ 10 teams have already won, meaning only AJ Foyt Racing, Bryan Herta Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Dale Coyne Racing have yet to win—and it wouldn’t be surprising if Foyt or RLL wins one of the remaining six events.

Make no mistake, Penske has been the team to beat as a whole. Montoya is running first in the championship, Power second, Castroneves fourth and Pagenaud 10th Even though the title appears to be Montoya’s to lose with a 27-point lead, it’s hardly in the bag. Power and Dixon are within 47 points—the maximum amount a driver can make up in a 23-car race—and Castroneves is within 52 points.

Yet three drivers—Graham Rahal, Bourdais and Marco Andretti—are within 52 points of Castroneves and another, Josef Newgarden, is within 54.

In other words, Castroneves is almost as close to eighth place as he is first place. The championship will be fought amongst Penske and Ganassi drivers, but the whole thing is a lot more competitive than one might have thought after the series’ first weekend.

Racers tend to believe that winning races will sort out the championship. Outside the series title, to a man it’s race wins that matter most. For teams with a fraction of the resources of Penske, Ganassi and Michael Andretti, race wins matter more.

Notably, Castroneves has yet to win a race this season. Team Penske has won three, by Montoya and Power. Yet Newgarden, who won over the weekend at Toronto to anchor a 1-2 finish for owners Ed Carpenter, Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman, has won twice. Put another way, Newgarden has only one less victory than the Penske quartet combined. Same with  Scott Dixon.

Power has six Top 5 finishes; Montoya and Castroneves have five, and Pagenaud two.

Compare that with: Dixon (6), Graham Rahal (4), Bourdais (3), Marco Andretti (3) and Kanaan (2).

This is not the complete and utter domination foreshadowed after the St. Pete results became official. Given a stronger aero package by Honda, the results would likely be even closer.

It’s a credit to the rest of the field.

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