RACER.com continues its breakdown of each team's season in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Second up is Team Penske, with each driver, points total and finish, wins/poles or best start/finish, average start, points per race and laps led, if applicable.
TEAM PENSKE (Chevrolet)
Will Power / (465, 2nd)
Helio Castroneves / (431, 4th)
Ryan Briscoe / (370, 6th)
Wins: Six (Power three, Castroneves two, Briscoe one)
Poles: Eight* (Power five, Briscoe two*, Castroneves one)
Avg. Start: Power 6, Briscoe 7.3, Castroneves 9.8
Points Per Race: Power 31, Castroneves 28.7, Briscoe 24.7
Laps Led: Power 294, Castroneves 265, Briscoe 77
*Note: Briscoe on pole in Long Beach but lost due to grid penalty.
A sigh first. Outside of the Andretti Autosport camp, you'd have to imagine most of the immediate reaction to Will Power's Fontana accident was shock, disbelief and utter heartbreak for the Australian who's long been IndyCar's fastest driver, but never its champion. This should have been the year when he put that to rest; instead, it was once again a case of so close, so yet so far away for Power – even despite the entire Penske organization's efforts to rebuild his broken car at Auto Club Speedway.
In analyzing his season, it was the same story – dominant on road and street courses, yet lacking on the ovals. The five oval finishes left him 18th in those standings – equal with James Jakes by comparison – and 82 points behind oval champion Hunter-Reay. Hunter-Reay was second to Power in the road and street course standings, trailing by 79 points. Power had the most poles, five, and scored two of his wins in stellar fashion coming from ninth at Barber and 12th at Long Beach. The Long Beach one in particular, Power was a fuel saving master. He recovered from an engine change penalty at Edmonton to climb from 17th to third.
There were too many accolades away from the ovals to count, but ultimately came up one or two positions short over the course of the season. Perhaps the greatest frustration, beyond Fontana, was the amount of poor luck he had that took him out of potential wins from leading positions at Toronto (closed pits under yellow), Mid-Ohio (blocked in pit entry) and Sonoma (stuck in traffic on his final pit out lap, dropped to second).
As for his teammates, Helio Castroneves seemed rejuvenated after a fraught 2011. While he didn't have Power's outright pace he succeeded in the consistency department – some 12 top-10 finishes in 15 races – and two popular wins at St. Pete to open the season and Edmonton. The chemistry seemed to click, too, between him and race strategist John Erickson in their first full season together. Erickson helped Castroneves in terms of when to and when to not use push-to-pass at Edmonton. Power's supplanted him as “The Captain's” eternal bridesmaid – a title he'll hope to shed – in the interim, as long as Castroneves can keep pace, gather results and contend at Indy, he'll be fine within the Penske empire.
You could make a case for Ryan Briscoe as Penske's second best driver as well – I attempted to after his Sonoma win – but there was just that little bit lacking by comparison this year. Sonoma and Baltimore summed up his season in a microcosm – brilliant defending against Power at Sonoma (a move which some could argue cost Power the title, with the 10-point differential first to second), then snookered by Hunter-Reay in a form of gamesmanship on the restart in Baltimore. I like Briscoe a lot; I think he's a genuine individual and still a better driver than about 60 percent of the field most of the time. But he's in a state of perpetual “almost there” at Penske rather than having an opportunity to play team leader.
Penske has now completed its 11th season in IndyCar under IRL or IndyCar sanctioning since switching from CART at the end of 2001 – and it has only Sam Hornish Jr.'s 2006 title in that time frame, along with four Indianapolis 500 wins (2002, '03, '06, '09). For a team of Penske's stature, and a driver of Power's caliber, it's very surprising those numbers aren't higher. Might a scaled-back two-car effort be on the cards if Briscoe doesn't end up returning for a sixth IndyCar season? Stay tuned – or in the interim, stay tuned to Castroneves' “Dancing with the Stars” encore.