Monday, January 22, 2018
Sports

As Penske's cars pull away, everyone else plays catch-up

INDIANAPOLIS — The IndyCar chase is kicking into high gear.

As Roger Penske's dominant cars continue to run up front, just about everyone else is pursuing the series' hottest team. Somehow over the last 14 months, Team Penske has turned one of the world's most competitive racing circuits into a virtual one-team showcase.

It claimed the top three spots in last year's standings, added the fourth-place finisher during the offseason and has won all five poles and the last three races this season. Defending series champion Simon Pagenaud currently holds a 10-point lead over Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing in the standings. The next three spots are all occupied by Pagenaud's teammates.

"I feel like we have as good a shot as anybody this month," said Graham Rahal, who races for Rahal Letterman Lanigan. "You've just got to go beat them because the more you beat them, the more they'll question themselves. But when you don't beat them, they don't question themselves."

Penske's unquestioned success defies logic.

On what is essentially supposed to be a level playing field, the winner of more IndyCar races than any other team owner has seemingly found a secret code nobody else has cracked.

Penske's Chevrolet-powered team has been the only significant threat to Honda this season, and there's no indication Penske's team is going to let anyone else get close to them at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

After Will Power won from the pole Saturday to give Penske his third straight IndyCar Grand Prix title, the Captain will now try to pad his incredible resume with an unprecedented 18th Indianapolis 500 pole in qualifying this weekend and an unprecedented 17th 500 win on May 28.

In Tuesday's hot, slick, windy conditions that could serve as a simulation of race day, the fastest lap on the 2.5-mile oval came from — who else? — Power at 224.656 mph. Helio Castroneves was second at 224.287. Colombian Gabby Chaves, who drives for Harding Racing, was third at 223.991.

Two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso finished 24th with a best lap of 221.029. He turned the most laps of the day, 117, and was one of 32 drivers on the track as he prepares for his closely watched debut in the showcase race.

Some in the series acknowledge the thrill of the chase has been replaced by frustration. Others view the Penske powerhouse team as an example of what every team should aspire to.

"For 50 years, they've set the standard for all of us and what we want to achieve," Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull said. "We've been able to race with them side-by-side for a long time, and it's always been fair."

Clearly, Penske has advantages.

The team is well-funded, well-tooled and possesses a wealth of experience, on the track and in the garage. Power and Pagenaud each own series titles, Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya each have multiple 500 wins and newcomer Josef Newgarden may be the best young driver in the series.

Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport also have money and multi-car teams with championship pedigrees, and over the last 15 years they've been Penske's most consistent rivals.

But even they have struggled to catch Penske's team.

Dixon gave Ganassi his only two wins last season. The team still hasn't won in 2017. Andretti's only win last year came when rookie Alexander Rossi won the 500. Michael Andretti's team hasn't won this year, either.

Meanwhile, the Penske cars have won 13 of 21 races.

"This team works days and nights, 24-7 if need be," said Pagenaud, who raced on Sam Schmidt's team before joining Penske for the 2015 season. "And it has so many resources that we should be there (on top). The team that works the hardest should get rewarded, right?"

But around Gasoline Alley, everybody works hard and eventually those getting right now believe they will finally get past Penske's drivers at some point.

"They're not unbeatable. They're not," Rahal said. "It is frustrating, but at the same time, you have to give them credit. They have great resources and stuff and they have utilized them."

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