INDIANAPOLIS – The last time the NTT IndyCar Series was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in racing conditions Team Penske stole the show. They swept the Month of May last year. In fact, the INDYCAR Grand Prix has become Team Penske’s playground. So much so, drivers were starting to call this race the “Penske Grand Prix.” Well, after how Friday action went at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we may need to pump the brakes on the Penske train for Saturday’s 85 Lap race (3 p.m. ET/NBC/INDYCAR Radio Network).
In one year, the speed has evaporated. Or did it?
See, Penske has won this race in four straight years. The only two drivers to have won the race in general reside with Team Penske. But, only one of the four Penske cars made the Fast Six on Friday. That was Will Power who will start sixth.
Two of the remaining three failed to make it out the first round of qualifying with Josef Newgarden starting 13th and Helio Castroneves 15th. That wasn’t too surprising though as Newgarden was only fifth and 14th respectively in practice and Castroneves 23rd and 18th himself.
Simon Pagenaud is the lone remaining Penske driver and he’ll start eighth.
Last year, this Penske group started 1-6-7-10. Now, the exact same group is 6-8-13-15. What happened?
I started to wonder if it was the offseason is what happened.
See, Penske spent most of their offseason time trying to improve on street courses. In order to win a championship in this series, you have to be good everywhere. Well, Penske has struggled lately on street courses. They had one win in their last 10 street course starts heading into this season.
Did spending so much of their resources on development on their street course program cost them their road course advantage?
“I feel like yeah for sure,” said Newgarden during a stroll with him back to Gasoline Alley. “I said at the beginning of the year that our street course car will be a lot better. I think we have a little bit of work to do on our road course car. We’ve seen that at the beginning of this year. There’s a lot of types of tracks and a lot of areas to be strong and you try to be as strong as you can be at all those tracks but I think we need a little work on the road course side overall. We’ll get there. We need more time. I hope by the middle of the year we would have gotten there.”
His teammate Will Power agrees to an extent but says it’s puzzling because he was strong at COTA in March. He thinks it’s a combination of the offseason improvement in some areas and a loss in others but just the nature on how competitive this field really is. I mean last year he set the quickest time in qualifying at 1:08.8182-seconds. He led 56 of the 85 laps.
Friday, he went quicker at 1:08.7901-seconds in virtually the same cars but will start five spots further back and was .5-seconds slower than the pole. How?
“Honestly it’s so hard with these cars because there’s not much you can do,” said Power. “Everyone’s pretty much got the same stuff. It can be very confusing when you look at it out the window. You can see what suspension sets teams are running and you try that. It’s the whole package. It’s tough. It’s confusing today to be honest.
“It’s so tough it’s ridiculous. The quality of the field is amazing. This series is the only top line series with serious parity. Everyone’s got the same stuff. There’s no other series in the world that’s like that. It’s why it’s so hard. We want to get that out there. People in Europe are like ‘oh pff IndyCar’ but it’s not true. Any of those guys would come over here and get a big shock.”
The common census though is that all three drivers have good handling cars, they just don’t have the speed in them.
“You can win from anywhere,” Newgarden told me. “That’s not the big problem. It’s more just to figure out where the speeds at. My car just felt good it’s just lacking speed. That’s a head scratcher.
“I’m more worried about how we figure out our speed.”
Power said the same thing, he doesn’t know where their speed went. But, it may not be where it went but rather where Honda gained.
Honda tested here last week and went all in on trying to catch Penske in this race. They’ve also on three of the four races this season and 12 of the last 15 overall. They have the most speed in them over the last 11 months.
Four of the five cars in front of Power are Honda’s.
Maybe it’s a combination of spending so much time figuring out the street courses as well as Honda’s gain to why Saturday may not be a Penske dominance.