It's definitely an indicator of how good your team is when scoring six wins and having a driver finish third in the championship is your outfit's worst showing in almost a decade.
That was the lot of Team Penske in 2018. But to paraphrase the old saying, you can't keep a good team down.
“I feel we are definitely back in a much better window,” said Will Power, who was that third-place finisher in points a year ago after totaling three wins, four poles and eight podiums in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “We are just understanding more of how the (universal aero kit) works and the best way to get the most out of the car. We made improvements and we expect to be fighting for the championship.”
The team punctuated its return to form at the outset of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. Power won the NTT P1 Award pole position for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and finished third in the race, with teammate Josef Newgarden the winner. Power took his second straight pole of the year at the INDYCAR Classic and led the first 45 of 60 laps at Circuit of The Americas before a broken drive shaft ended his day. Newgarden salvaged the team’s honor with a second-place finish and the Tennessean leads the standings after two of 17 races.
Ending an Indy car season without a Penske driver in the top two has been a rarity in recent years. The last time it happened prior to 2018 was in 2009, when Ryan Briscoe finished third – one point behind Scott Dixon and 12 shy of champion Dario Franchitti. A perennial title contender, the top Team Penske driver has finished outside the top three in points only twice since 2000.
Although 2018 marked a reduction in the number of full-time Penske cars from four to three when Helio Castroneves shifted to the team’s fledgling sports-car operation, Newgarden insisted it wasn't at the root of the team's dip in overall performance.
“I don't think that really had any bearing on how we performed last year, to be honest,” Newgarden said. “It's never bad to have more quality information. Helio was very quality. He was a great, great driver, had always good information. His engineer that we had always had good information. That added to the program. Reducing that, I don't think we lost anything.”
The issue that really cost Penske stemmed from the team's struggles to get the aerodynamics from the universal kit that debuted last year tuned properly to help the Chevrolet powerplants transfer horsepower efficiently to the track surface.
While Chevrolet continues to fine-tune the engine and offer new mappings to get the most out of it, Penske's work on figuring how to get the power down has delivered gains over last year. The result is that the path to the 2019 series title could well include one or more Team Penske drivers solidly in the mix.
Each of the trio has past championship experience. Power, in his 11th season with Team Penske and 15th in Indy cars, won the 2014 title and has finished second or third six more times. Newgarden won the title in 2017, his first season with Team Penske. Simon Pagenaud won the 2016 crown with Team Penske and finished second to Newgarden the succeeding season.
Power left St. Petersburg with his best result in four years and looked as if he would capitalize on it until the drive shaft incident at Circuit of The Americas saddled the Australian with a 24th-place finish. Still, he is sixth in the standings, 46 points behind Newgarden, with a long way to go in the season.
“If we just eliminate that stuff,” Power said about the mechanical DNF, “we will be in great shape.
“We're quick every weekend. I just want to have a normal run in a season without this sort of crap.”
Pagenaud admittedly struggled to find the right car balance in 2018 and finished sixth in the championship no wins. A promising seventh-place finish at St. Pete to open 2019 was counterbalanced by a 19th-place result at COTA that leaves the Frenchman 13th in the current standings.
Newgarden, meanwhile, is riding the wave. Despite not being able to challenge rookie Colton Herta for the win at the INDYCAR Classic, he was pleased to finish runner-up with the big picture in mind.
“A second place is big for us,” Newgarden said. “We talked about the fact that you need to have podium finishes if you aren't winning races and this goes a long way to our championship run.”
The NTT IndyCar Series returns to action this week with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, where Newgarden is the defending winner. Action begins with two practices on Friday (12:15 and 3:50 p.m. ET) and a third on Saturday (11:45 a.m.). INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold streams all practices live.
NTT P1 Award qualifying starts at 4 p.m. Saturday and airs live on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. Coverage of Sunday’s 90-lap race from Barber Motorsports Park begins at 4 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
RaceControl.IndyCar.com is your home for live timing and scoring accompanied by Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network commentary for every weekend session. It is also available through the INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA, which also includes select in-car cameras during the race and in-car radios for all drivers. INDYCAR Mobile is available for free worldwide and may be downloaded for your smartphone by clicking here.