Anytime you come in second when you know you are capable of winning, it usually takes a while for you to realize the positives that exist in beating everyone – except one. The past two IZOD IndyCar Series titles have slipped away from Team Penske in the last race at Homestead after having a commanding lead in the championship in the latter part of the year. This year, Dario (Franchitti) was able to finish ahead of Will Power to win the title.
The Ganassi team surprised us this year at Homestead: in qualifying, they were definitely faster than they'd been at the test earlier in the week, and they were faster than they'd been in the race at any other 1.5-mile oval this year, relative to our teams. Why that was, only they can answer. But at the same time, we never saw how strong Dario really was in the Homestead race, because throughout, he had not only Scott Dixon protecting him but also Tony Kanaan. Tony and Dario are great friends, they were teammates at Andretti Green and they were both very close to Greg Moore, so we knew Tony would do anything to help Dario.
Our three drivers did all they could in the first half of the race to get up to the lead and Ryan Briscoe was actually able to lead a few laps until Dixon and Tony were able to get by when Ryan got a little high in Turn 4. Dario was actually running fourth at this point, but once Dario got past Ryan for third, Dixon and Kanaan moved over so Dario could get back up to lead the laps he needed to score the bonus points for the championship. So it was obvious to us that Dario was only having to race our guys that night. That's motor racing, though. At the end of the day, the Ganassi guys put themselves in a position to win and they executed with less mistakes during the season. That is why they are champions.
Failing to win the championship has more to do with other races than it does with Homestead. For instance, certainly what happened at Chicagoland was the key to Dario and Ganassi getting back in the championship. The Ganassi team was able to get track position for Dario by only taking fuel on the last pit stop and Will didn't get all the fuel he needed, so he had to make an extra stop that dropped him from potentially winning the race to finishing 16th. That was a difference of 36 points. Granted, Dario would've liked to do the Iowa race over again after having an uncharacteristic mechanical failure, but it really came down to the fact that they only had one bad race, where we had a few more when you include our results at Chicago, Kansas, Indy and Homestead.
Will and the Verizon team left Sonoma with a 59-point lead. Someone did the math of the previous oval segment of the schedule from Kansas through Iowa, and the points Dario gained on Will in that time was close to that figure, so we knew if we didn't improve upon that, it was going to be really close at the end. Well, that's how it turned out. The bottom line is that Dario was able to minimize his mistakes and that's why he has won championships for two different teams. That said, Will has progressed well on ovals and after seeing how strong he ran at Indy, we all expected him to win on an oval this year.
Those last four oval races weren't a bust for Team Penske by any means. Helio Castroneves won at both Kentucky and Motegi and it was great that these victories were achieved in such different ways. Over the course of our 11 seasons together, Helio and I have both won and lost a few fuel-mileage races. When you don't win them it is usually because you aren't decisive early enough in the race. I tell him that we will forever be the first IndyCar team to finish second to a woman, because when Danica Patrick won at Motegi in 2008, it took us 10 laps after the final restart before we turned the fuel knob down and started trying to save fuel. On the other hand, we won the biggest race of all, the Indianapolis 500, in 2002 because we gambled on fuel. At Kentucky this year, we got it just right again.
Winning fuel mileage races is a tricky, but interesting, business. It goes against all of the drivers' instincts as it isn't really until they get to the top levels of the sport that they really put much emphasis on how to save fuel. During these types of races, it is up to the race strategist to determine whether your chances to win are best served by racing as hard as possible and hoping a caution flag comes, which negates the fuel saving strategy, or is it better to roll the dice and try to use just enough fuel to finish.
We typically tell the driver what fuel mileage we want to see and then they go through various throttle and gear settings to try and achieve that number. From the telemetry, we will gauge the best lap-time/fuel economy compromise and then try to coach the driver to the end. It is always very difficult for a driver like Helio to let the rest of the cars get away from him while saving fuel because it just isn't a competitive race driver's nature. This is when you have to have developed a degree of trust between you and the driver, because some days it works out perfectly and other days a caution flag comes out and then you have to not only pass all of the cars that were in front of you, but then you must also pass all of the ones you let go while saving fuel! Fate always has a lot to do with how these races play out but, as always, races like Kentucky are won by putting yourself in a position to win by balancing the risks and rewards when choosing your best odds, and then taking a calculated gamble.
Having said that, I'd much rather win races the way we won at Twin Ring Motegi. The strategy for the fastest car is usually a lot simpler – it's “execute!” You decide your own fate. I think at both Indy and Motegi, Helio's confidence level is very similar. At Motegi, he has been on the pole four out of the last five races. That's pretty impressive when you consider that we have had many different qualifying formats along the way – one lap, average of two laps, average of four – and it just comes down to him knowing how to get around there. This year, almost anyone could've done the race strategy as he was in a class by himself and even when he lost a couple of positions on a restart, he got back to the front without much trouble.
When looking forward to the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season, we are still finalizing our programs as it will be difficult to campaign all three cars for another season the way we did in 2010 when Verizon was our only primary sponsor. We are doing everything we can to run three cars for next year, as we really value our current drivers and we want to keep the great chemistry we have between them. At this point, I would say that we will get this done, as Will is remaining in the Verizon car and I think we will be able to offer Ryan and Helio a good program as well. I would expect Shell Pennzoil to play a part in some fashion, but you never know until it's finalized. I think we will have a better idea some time in November.