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Team Penske owns formula for success at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

Team Penske drivers Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya will officially unveil new silver cars that Power dubbed "the silver bullet" when the IndyCar season opens today. • It's an odd choice; when it comes to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Penske is only used to gold. The racing powerhouse has won seven of the series' 11 races at this 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course and will be favored again today after sweeping the top four spots in Saturday's qualifying. • "They're our yardstick," Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon said. • And everyone else keeps measuring up short. • No driver has more Grand Prix victories than Penske's Helio Castroneves (three). Power has won here twice and will start on the pole for the sixth time in the past seven years after breaking his own track record. Montoya had to beat his teammates to win last year's race; Penske's four drivers all finished in the top five and combined to lead 105 of the 110 laps.

Since a disappointing 2005 when both drivers wrecked, Penske has led more than half (556) of the total laps (1,030) while always placing at least one driver in the top two.

"If you look at those different races that we've won over the years," team president Tim Cindric said, "they're all very different."

Penske drivers have won on pure speed; Castroneves led 95 of the race's 100 laps in 2007 and beat the entire field by more than five seconds in 2012.

They have won on strategy; Power deployed a controversial slow restart that triggered a wreck in 2014.

They have won on luck; Castroneves used a fortuitous caution flag to win under yellow in 2006.

And they have won on bold moves; Ryan Briscoe passed Justin Wilson off of a restart with 14 laps left to win in 2009.

The only common factors, the team and its competitors said, are the right people and the right parts.

The drivers' credentials are obvious. Montoya is one of the most accomplished drivers of his generation; he's a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion with victories in IndyCar, Formula One and the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

"There's no tougher guy on the race track than Montoya when he gets in the car," team owner Roger Penske said.

But Montoya might not be the best driver on his team. Castroneves and Power are both in the top 16 of the all-time victory list in American open-wheel history with 54 wins combined. Simon Pagenaud, who joined the team last year, has finished in the top five in points in three of his four full-time IndyCar seasons.

The result is a team with four decorated drivers who push each other in every practice session and help each other's strategy. They walked the track as a team Thursday to analyze every corner and every bump.

"You don't have an A team and a B team — you don't have any of that," said Montoya, last year's series runnerup. "All four cars are equal."

And if they're not, the team's engineers work together to get them that way.

"There's nothing that is secret between the cars," Penske said. "In fact, we really want to know why one's better than the other. Is it the car? Is it the driver? Is it the setup?"

That setup always seems to be right at the Grand Prix, which Cindric attributes to the crew's offseason work.

The Grand Prix comes toward the beginning of the season and has been the series opener in six of the past seven years. All teams have the same amount of limited testing, but Penske joins Ganassi and Andretti Autosport as the only teams with four cars. The extra drivers and resources help Penske extract every bit of information from those few practice sessions.

"I feel like preparation has always been something that we strive for," Cindric said. "From a fitness perspective and an overall preparation standpoint the drivers come here prepared.

"I think as far as hitting the ground running, our engineers, our drivers, our team … our group's good at getting going early."

Penske proved that last year with its showing here.

The series debuted new bodywork at the Grand Prix, and teams were still trying to find the best way to configure the aero kits' tiny flaps and winglets. Penske figured it out first; Power broke the track record as his team qualified 1-2-3-4.

"Every year, we come in, we've paid attention to those small details," Castroneves said.

Those small details remain a secret. Former series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay said there are a near-infinite number of possibilities, ranging from geometry to springs, that have given Penske's drivers a little extra grip and speed.

"If we knew, then we'd figure it out," said Dixon, who has finished runnerup to Penske drivers three times here. "It's never that easy."

Penske just makes it look that way.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

. Fast facts

Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

IndyCar season opener, 12:30 p.m. today

TV: Ch. 28

Course: Downtown streets, 1.8-mile circuit that also includes part of Albert Whitted Airport

Tickets: Call toll-free 1-877-725-8849 or go to gpstpete.com. General admission tickets are $25 for ages 12 and under and $50 for adults. Reserved tickets range from $50 for ages 12 and under in lower rows to $100 for adult tickets in upper rows.

Team Penske owns formula for success at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 03/12/16 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2016 10:54pm]
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