Disappointing Indy 500 Qualifying Effort Not Whole Story for Team Penske
When it comes to the Indianapolis 500, the words “Team Penske” and “underdog” are as diametrically opposite as any pair of words in Webster’s Dictionary.
After all, how do you call an organization that has won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing a record 18 times an underdog? But that’s what Team Penske finds itself being referred to following this weekend’s qualifying and final setting of the field for next Sunday’s 105th running of the 500.
On the surface, you’d probably assess Team Penske’s chances as mediocre to poor, at best. It’s highest-qualifying driver is a rookie to both the team and the 500, New Zealand import Scott McLaughlin, who will take the green flag from the middle of the sixth row (17th position).
That’s more than halfway through the 33-car starting field before you find a Team Penske driver’s name on the grid.
And that’s where things go from bad to worse for Team Penske.
Josef Newgarden, who is still searching for his first career 500 triumph, will start on the outside of the seventh row (21st position). 2019 500 winner Simon Pagenaud will start in the middle of the ninth row (26th).
And the biggest surprise/disappointment is 2018 500 winner Will Power, who barely managed to qualify in Sunday’s last chance attempt to make the field. He’ll start in the middle of the 11th and last row (32nd), alongside Simona de Silvestro, who is essentially piloting a satellite car for Team Penske with a technical alliance, engine, chassis and personnel from the big organization.
OK, so Team Penske looks like it’s in really big trouble next Sunday, right?
To quote a very famous man, who used to say this around Christmas time, “Bah, humbug!” Or maybe Roger Penske should go to the top of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pagoda and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, shout out, “Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
In other words, if you think any and all of the four regular Team Penske cars are going to be also-rans in the 500, you are out of your mind.
If anything, Team Penske has the rest of the field right where it wants it. They could potentially be the most dangerous organization in the 500 field.
Yes, you read that right. Sure, defending NTT IndyCar Series champ Scott Dixon of rival Chip Ganassi Racing is on the pole for the 500 for the fourth time in his career, and Ed Carpenter Racing holds down the third and fourth spots with last week’s Grand Prix winner Rinus VeeKay on the outside of the front row and team owner Ed Carpenter, always a threat at Indy, on the inside of Row 2.
But if you think Team Penske is out of it before the race even starts, think again. I will boldly predict that by Lap 30, at least two and maybe three of the cars owned by Roger Penske will be in the top-10.
I also predict that Power is going to be a real power—no pun intended—to be dealt with, as well. He is likely embarrassed at how poor his team fared in qualifying. That’s a good thing, though. The No. 12 team will likely be looking at all types of ways to improve the car this week heading into Friday’s annual Carb Day. You will see a night-and-day difference come race day.
How Team Penske lines up isn’t really shocking in the overall scheme of things. In last year’s Indy 500, Newgarden was the highest qualifier, starting a mediocre 13th and finished a team-high fifth. As for his teammates that day, Helio Castroneves started 28th and finished 11th, Power started 22nd and finished 14th and Pagenaud started 25th and finished 21st.
There’s no question that the four drivers for the 2021 edition of Team Penske—with McLaughlin in and Castroneves out (although he will start a very strong eighth for rival Meyer Shank Racing, something that I’m betting Roger may be kicking himself for now, letting Helio go)—is bound and determined not to have another collective finish like it did in last year’s 500.
In other words, they can’t disappoint The Captain for a second straight year, regardless of how this year’s qualifying looks. What’s more, perhaps more than any other multi-car operation in the series, Team Penske has a “all for one and one for all” mentality, something you don’t necessarily find with other teams. It not only has enough cars and personnel to get to victory lane, if it’s apparent one driver will have the best shot to take the checkered flag, the other Penske cars will do their darndest to block and keep opposing drivers and teams from getting a last-shot bid to win.
Newgarden, who was looked upon as potentially having his best-ever chance to win the 500 this season—well, at least before qualifying—is arguably hungrier than he ever has been to win the 500, particularly with two teammates (Power and Pagenaud) having won the 500 already.
“I feel really good about us still,” Newgarden said after Saturday’s qualifying effort. “I’ve been very happy with it all week. The boys have been doing a great job. It’s just not what we wanted today, but we’re going to keep working on it … and I’m obviously excited about next weekend. We can keep digging; we always can. We’re off a little bit, no doubt, but the race is another story. … I’ll be happier next weekend in race trim.”
Although unintentionally, McLaughlin showed up his teammates by being the fastest-qualifying member of the squad. That’s all the more impressive as Indianapolis Motor Speedway is only the second oval track he’s ever raced on—and the first was Texas Motor Speedway for the doubleheader there a few weeks back.
That McLaughlin could take to Indy like a duck to water and make it look easy gives him a great chance at not only being top rookie in the race, but he could prove a formidable foe to many of the series’ top veterans, pole sitter—and fellow New Zealand countryman—Dixon included.
“I’m feeling pretty confident,” McLaughlin said, and rightly so.
Pagenaud has had little to say this week, not even making the Team Penske and Chevrolet media quote sheets either Saturday or Sunday. But from past history, when the Frenchman speaks little (as he did prior to his win in the 500 two years ago), he typically makes up for it with a strong outing on race day. Expect nothing less than the same next Sunday.
And then there’s Power. Even with scraping the wall on the final lap of his last-chance bid to qualify on Sunday, he kept his foot in the gas and by doing so assured himself not only a race day spot, it also prevented him from becoming a dubious footnote to 500—and Team Penske—history by being the first team member to fail to qualify for the world’s biggest race since 1995.
Yes, on paper, Team Penske is an underdog. But you can rip that paper to shreds and burn it because it may be the only multi-car operation that can go from such a unsavory overall qualifying effort to potentially finishing 1-2-3-and-4 next Sunday.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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