A couple weeks ago, RACER editor David Malsher pondered the possibilities of what might happen if Roger Penske opts not to keep Ryan Briscoe for another IndyCar season into 2013. I don't know if Ryan read that or not; that said, he didn't do himself a disservice by coming through in the most possible clutch manner Sunday in Sonoma with his first win since Texas 2010.
Briscoe's an easy guy to root for, and for the entirety of his Penske tenure, has always dealt with a lingering black cloud of pressure and speculation whether he'd keep his seat. It can't have been easy for him to keep such a positive public stance given the vultures swirling around him for five years.
It all started merely a handful of races into his Penske debut, replacing one of the most dominant drivers in the IRL era, Sam Hornish Jr. Briscoe had several accidents and a high-profile coming together with Danica Patrick in the pits in the 2008 Indianapolis 500. While he stayed in his car, Patrick infamously stormed down the pit lane to seek him out, before being corralled by both series security and her PR rep.
A week later, Briscoe delivered an authoritative “Dear haters, shut up” performance with his first win on the treacherous and challenging Milwaukee Mile. The fact it was Penske's 300th as an organization didn't hurt, either – the Aussie had earned a place in Penske lore and, in some respects, had made himself more valuable within the team going forward.
Further wins at Mid-Ohio and the non-championship round at Surfers' Paradise boosted his stock going into 2009, particularly when it became apparent Helio Castroneves would be dealing with tax evasion charges and was in jeopardy of missing the season.
He should have won the 2009 series championship, but for a mistake leaving pit exit in Motegi, Japan. That year, Briscoe asserted himself as The Captain's “top dog” with Castroneves fighting his tax evasion charges and Will Power entering the fold on a part-time basis as the backup plan. The Motegi mistake was his only finish outside the top four – one of only two worse than second place – in the year's last nine races.
From that point on, though, Briscoe has struggled to recapture the magic as Power ascended to the top of the Penske pecking order once he earned his full-season ride in 2010. The bigger change beyond the driving came from a sponsorship standpoint; after almost 20 years, Phillip Morris support in the form of the trademark red and white chevrons ended, which left Power's Verizon-backed entry as the sole car with a singular full-season sponsor.
That's led to the current situation, where Power's had stability and security, but sponsorship has revolved around Castroneves and Briscoe's cars on a rotating basis, thus making a clear divide within the team to see who would be number two given neither car was fully supported. Castroneves had the support of Penske based on his three Indianapolis 500 victories and his marketing ability, but with Briscoe offering little in the form of tangible results by comparison, his status has been consistently questioned.
It really boils down to a Castroneves versus Briscoe statistical comparison to examine where the two stand from a performance standpoint, rather than just a marketing one. And on that front, calls for Briscoe's departure seem unjust.
In 2011, Briscoe comprehensively outperformed Castroneves. He outqualified him in 11 of 17 races, scored four podiums to Castroneves' two, with four top fives to Castroneves' three, and ended sixth in points compared to Castroneves' 11th. Briscoe's qualifying average was eighth, fourth best in the field, compared to a 10.4 for Castroneves (sixth best).
This year, although Castroneves has clawed back some performance, Briscoe's still more than held his own. He holds a 9-4 qualifying edge over Castroneves, but has struggled to match the raw pace on race day thanks to a myriad of issues.
Now granted, compared to Power, the stats look rather dismal, and in the eyes of Team Penske, wins, poles, championships and Indianapolis 500s matter far more. But in a season that has been so competitive, where 21 of the 26 full-season drivers (counting both Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge, who've split the season at Dragon Racing after Indianapolis) have a top-five finish, Power's numbers have made his teammates look weaker than they actually are compared to the entirety of the field. That more speaks to his strengths, not his teammates' weaknesses.
This year in particular, the results have gone begging almost as they did for Castroneves a year ago. The relationship between Briscoe and Penske is such to where Penske's been on the pit box, calling his races, for most if not all races since the two joined forces for the first time with the Porsche RS Spyder American Le Mans Series P2 program in 2007. Briscoe told me in an interview before the season that Penske's support “has been the biggest part of his career.”
If Briscoe was to be retained for 2013, might Penske switch it up from a race strategist standpoint where someone else – maybe a Clive Howell – could replace him in that role? The change where Tim Cindric moved from Castroneves' car to Power's initially took time for them to gel in their new roles, but the Power/Cindric combo has been great and Castroneves and John Erickson have meshed much better this year. Perhaps a switch there could aid Briscoe going forward.
Is there room for improvement for Briscoe? Of course there is. By no means did his win on Sunday secure his position for next year. There was clearly luck involved and bad luck bit Power, who had once again been the dominant driver all weekend.
Still, for once, it was good to see a guy who's kept his head down and hasn't complained publicly about his status within the team step up and take a needed victory. For a week at least, the doubters can be silenced.
He might want to work on those post-victory burnouts, though.