Detroit — The “home team” is sitting pretty.
In hot contention for five of the last seven IndyCar Series championships, Team Penske has been unable to seal the deal down the stretch. It has produced four runners-up and no champions since 2006.
After five races this season, Roger Penske’s drivers hold second, third and seventh place, sparring with Andretti Autosport for the top spot and currently besting traditional archrival Chip Ganassi Racing, which lags one-third of the way through the schedule.
Part of what encourages confidence Penske can win the 2014 championship is the talent in the paddock.
For 48 years, some of the greatest drivers in the world have raced for Penske. This season, it is a formidable trio: Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya.
“We brought in Juan Montoya,” Penske said of the new driver on the roster this season. “The good thing is he’s a great friend of Will and Helio, and obviously that gives us three bullets in our gun.
“Our goal is to win, here, at Belle Isle. And, the championship? Helio made a big jump up at Indy (where Castroneves finished second to the current series leader Ryan Hunter-Reay).
“But it’s a long season. It’s going to be tight.
“What we have to do is be consistent, have reliability and don’t make mistakes.”
The three drivers place their faith in Penske, 77, who keeps the headquarters of his 44-year-old transportation company in Bloomfield Hills.
“For me, this is the first year that I have Roger full time in my radio,” Castroneves said of their in-race roles. “It took me 15 seasons to get him.”
Castroneves is currently third in the IndyCar Series. He led the 2013 championship for 14 races, including 12 consecutive weeks, before finishing second to Scott Dixon of Ganassi.
“I’m happy that Roger’s helping me because — now that I have a lot of understanding of the strategy, with his experience — I kind of focus on the driving,” the 39-year-old Brazilian said. “What are the details I need to do to make it better, if it’s a different gear or going into a corner.
“I don’t even look into the mirrors because he is telling me the distance sometimes with the guys behind or in front. Those types of things really help me.”
The right stuff
Castroneves, who made a big splash at Indianapolis, winning his first two 500s back-to-back in 2001 and 2002, never has won the championship.
Now in his 15th season with Penske, he first performed his trademark celebration, scaling the nearest fence between the finish line and victory lane in fist-pumping exultation, in Detroit. Castroneves also finished second in the championship in 2002 and 2008 and third in 2003 and 2006.
Power is currently second in the series. He was in the hunt for the championship in 2010, 2011 and 2012. But a tough start to the season in 2013 left the 33-year-old Australian off the pace despite three wins and three poles.
He said racing with Penske means knowing the quality of the cars nearly assure running in contention.
“With Roger, you’re provided with the absolute best equipment to win,” Power said. “Everything Roger does, he does in a first-class way. He does it the right way. That’s how the race team is run, just like all his businesses around the world are the same deal.”
After a rough start to 2013, Power won three of the last five races and finished fourth in the championship.
The intense Power, a fitness freak with a dry sense of humor, demonstrated great courage in the season finale. Returning to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., where he lost a bid for the championship the year before by banging the wall, he persevered, winning the pole and leading for 103 laps before collecting his second career victory on an oval.
Power joined Penske in 2009. Since then, his 18 wins and 26 poles are the standards for all Indy racers.
“I think we definitely have a shot at the championship,” Power said of 2014. “It’s the early days, but we need to make sure we just keep on it.
“The Andretti team is a very strong team, right now, very tough to beat. But I think every race we go to we have the opportunity to win, we definitely have the equipment to do it.”
Montoya, running seventh in the series, returns to the Indy Series after stints in NASCAR Sprint Cup and Formula One.
The 38-year-old Columbian’s credentials are remarkable.
Only Montoya, Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney have won races in Formula One, CART/Indy and NASCAR. And, Montoya is the only driver to win a CART Series title, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona all on his first attempt.
Taught to race, beginning in go-karts, by his father Pablo, Montoya wanted to race for Penske even as a child in Bogota.
“Roger is an example, I think, of the person everybody wants to be,” Montoya said.
“His standards, his manners, the way he treats everybody, the way he remembers people’s names, it’s an example. It’s incredible.”
The alchemy of putting three top drivers in the same barn seems to be working. Castroneves and Power talk about Montoya’s institutional memory from multiple racing circuits, and how it sometimes helps them think unconventionally to solve problems or create opportunities.
“I’m able to ask the tough questions in terms of what do we have to make it better, and even a little bit outside of the ordinary stuff,” Castroneves said. “For me, as I said from the beginning, it was a great addition.”
Penske described Montoya, in part, as “a guy who is full of fun.” And Montoya said that despite appearances, he likes that Team Penske is not quite as buttoned-down as it seems.
“It’s funny because if you look at Team Penske from the outside, it seems so serious,” Montoya said. “But the atmosphere, everybody’s nice, everybody’s pushing for the same goals.
“It’s pretty exciting.”
Pressure from Ganassi
While Andretti Autosport is momentarily the toughest competition, Team Penske expects a considerable challenge from Ganassi, certainly, and perhaps others, before the 2014 IndyCar Championship is decided.
“We’ve all been in the place where we’ve walked away from Indy with a sour weekend,” Penske said of Chip Ganassi’s run of bad luck last weekend.
“But, look, he’s the team to beat. They always have been. The season’s not over. They’ve done a hell of a lot better job of closing than we have.
“When you think about the last four years, we were leading that championship coming up to the last couple of races and we were unable to close it. But I think it is wide-open.
“Obviously, Andretti is strong, Hunter-Reay’s got a nice lead. What we need to do is play our game, keep an eye on them and beat them.”