August 28, 2014 at 6:44 pm

Roger Penske on verge of latest IndyCar title

Roger Penske and Helio Castroneves celebrated winning the second tace of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. (Steve Perez / Detroit News)

Roger Penske’s career arcs through the last 56 years of racing, a constantly successful enterprise.

In the last 20 years, however, he has just one championship in the open-wheel chassis and monstrously powerful engines of “Indy” racing, along with an extensive list of valiant near misses.

With two of Penske’s three drivers, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, standing first and second entering the last race — a 500-mile jaunt around a superspeedway, the two-mile, 14-degree banked, D-shaped Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on Saturday — the IndyCar Series championship is fixed in his crosshairs.

“I think the biggest reason for our continued success is the people we have in place with the team,” Penske said. “We have a tremendous amount of experience and very talented, hard-working individuals who are driven to win and that is a good recipe for success.

“We still have a lot of work to do this weekend. As we’ve seen in the past, anything can happen in the Verizon IndyCar Series and with 500 miles of racing and double the points on the line, the stakes are definitely high.”

In recent weeks, Power’s car is the swiftest in the field, just as Castroneves had been early in the season when it stopped for the two races on Belle Isle.

But a spin last weekend at Sonoma might have cost Power a critical victory in the championship march. He finished 10th. The Australian, 33, has won at St. Petersburg, Detroit and Wisconsin during this 17-race season.

Castoneves entered Sonoma just 40 points behind Power. But he finished 18th after a first-lap, multi-car accident in which his front wing was badly damaged, forcing a significant, early pit stop.

Castroneves has been near the top of the field all season, even though the Brazilian, 39, won only the other race on Belle Isle.

Neither veteran driver has won the IndyCar championship.

Power leads Castroneves by 51 points. Simon Pagenaud is in third place, 81 points back.

Close calls

Fontana sets up a major challenge for Team Penske because it affords double points, ranging from 100 to 40 in the top 10 positions.

“It’s obviously been a very strong year for Roger, and a long time coming,” Power said. “We got to be second too many times, the team has.

“During the last five or six years, we’ve definitely had the speed to win the championships. But now we’re finally in a position that the team can do it, and you know, for me personally, I want to do it as well.”

Last year, despite 16 top 10 finishes in 19 races, Castroneves finished second in the championship.

Power was the bridesmaid in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, he was denied the championship despite five victories and a series record eight poles.

Ryan Briscoe had an outstanding season in 2009 for Penske before finishing third.

There have been other similar close finishes for him, in the championship. But his last championship was in 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. snared Penske’s record 14th victory in perhaps the most famous race in the world, the Indianapolis 500, and three other wins on his way to the title.

And the previous title was in 1994, when amid the sort of secrecy sometimes required in the Pentagon, Penske helped develop a matchless Mercedes-Benz engine that was the marvel of the field and powered Al Unser Jr.

“To be honest, it’s a terrific organization,” Castroneves said. “Obviously, I believe any driver would love to be part of it.

“The team, for many, many years we were close, and we settled for that. But this year, in the championship, we are super close to making it happen. And we’re so proud of it.

“Whether it’s myself or Will, we want to make sure we give this to Roger, who probably deserves it more than anybody.”

But the double points mean Pagenaud could fairly easily sneak in, especially if the gremlins of racing have their way with Power and Castroneves, like at Sonoma.

“We know we have good teams and good drivers that are motivated to win the championship, now we need to go out and execute this weekend,” Penske said.

“Our guys know that the team comes first,” he said, speaking of his crew that also includes the former Formula One and NASCAR racer Juan Pablo Montoya. “They all work to help each other succeed on the track and that helps our team overall. They all have unique personalities and they are a lot of fun to be around but they are all very driven and they know how to get the job done.”

Strong in NASCAR

Penske also is excelling in NASCAR, this year, with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano both within 84 points of the Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the top of Sprint Cup, two races before the Chase. Keselowski (Rochester Hills) won the 2012 Sprint Cup title, one of Penske’s 25 titles.

And young Ryan Blaney, yet another talented driver with what is likely a fine future, has won in the Nationwide series.

“We have been fortunate to have a lot of very productive and memorable racing seasons,” said Penske, who drove from 1958 to 1965 before stepping aside to run businesses and racing teams in so many forms of motor sports that he has run the gamut.

“We still have a lot of miles left to go here in 2014 so we need to keep working to reach our goals. This definitely has been a season to remember so far.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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