Although we fell short at Indy this year, we have a lot to be proud of so far. We have six of our eight entries in the top five of their respective championships (Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, IZOD IndyCar Series), we swept the All-Star weekend and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, we have won four times in the Nationwide Series and lead the championship, and all three of the Team Penske cars have visited Victory Lane this year in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
At Indy, we dominated the month right up until race day. Helio Castroneves gave Roger Penske his 16th pole position and we had three of the top four starting spots along with our fourth consecutive win in the pit stop competition. When it came to the race, we simply didn't execute.
It was really an uncharacteristic day for us. Helio's car started with a bit more understeer than we expected and we just weren't fast enough early on to get the track position we needed. As the race progressed, I was confident that Dario wasn't much better than our cars once he found traffic, but he drove an aggressive race and they didn't make any mistakes. I'm not sure if Helio would've been able to get by Dario later in the last 50 laps, but I sure would've liked to have had a chance. I have to hand it to Helio as he was the first to apologize for stalling the car in the pits. I know how bad he wanted his fourth Indy win and he handled it like a champion, as he always does.
On the other hand, I think what most people don't realize is that Will Power may have had the best car at Indy. He passed Helio early in the race and then went on to be the only one to pass Dario all day. He was on his way to a great race until we waved him out of the pit stall with the fuel probe still attached on his first green flag stop. Even with this mistake, and the drive-through penalty, he was able to get back in the top five and I felt he was going to be our best chance to win – until we overshot our pit and then left the pit stall with the left-front wheel loose.
Will had also been struggling with the push-to-pass system (they should just call it the overtake button as the broadcast guys struggle to even say “push-to-pass”) from the beginning of the race. I'm not sure if he wasn't holding the button long enough (must hold for half a second) or the ECU needed to be reset, which is what we did after the first few pit stops. Knowing he didn't even use the overtake button while driving through the field was even more impressive. Following the race, even Will commented that after what the No. 12 had been through, an eighth-place finish wasn't so bad.
But at the end of the day, Team Penske doesn't come to Indy to get an eighth, a ninth and a crashed racecar (Ryan Briscoe simply got up in the marbles on his out lap), so as soon as the race ended we all went back to the garage for a debrief to compare notes on why we had such a bad day. After that, you have to let the emotions subside and have constructive conversations – and that's what we did at the shop on Wednesday, once everyone was back from Indy.
It's still a team sport and you won't be successful over the long term if you get caught up in pointing the finger at each other. We win and we lose together, and the most important thing was to understand why we didn't win, because once you've done that, you can put things in place to ensure that we don't make the same mistakes going forward.
After the disappointment of Indy, it was great, later that night, to see Kurt Busch win for Penske Racing at the Coca-Cola 600 and it was significant because this was Roger's first points-paying win at Charlotte. To sweep the week – the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge had done the same thing at the All-Star race the previous weekend – made it a big, big night for us.
Obviously, the format of the All-Star race is different from the Coke 600, but it did mean Steve Addington, Kurt's crew chief, went into the second weekend with a good idea on setup and he also gained the knowledge of what the track was going to do when going from the heat of the day to the night. The shootout style of the All-Star race also gives the driver a great reference for the restarts later in the race and this proved to be our advantage as we got to the final pit stop in the 600. Steve knew what changes we needed and Kurt drove around a few guys and never looked back.
That, combined with a hard-earned sixth-place finish at Pocono after surviving a penalty for not having a valve stem cap on during an early stop, certainly positions us better for the Chase. It was just a good few weeks for both Kurt and our Nationwide programs. Brad Keselowski has been as solid as they come, with top-10 finishes in every race except Daytona when he got caught up in a last-lap crash. Winning at Richmond and Nashville really put us in a commanding position in the championship and now we have to finish the job. Although Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick skipped the Nashville race, it was satisfying knowing that we were ahead of both of them prior to that point. Our focus is now on ensuring we win the Nationwide Series driver and owner championship and I think we have a great shot at a 1-2 finish in the driver points as Justin Allgaier is only 18 points behind Carl Edwards.
Turning back to the IZOD IndyCar Series, the forthcoming engine platform was announced last week. (Series CEO) Randy Bernard has put together a great group of people, referred to as the ICONIC group, who are very in tune with motorsports in general and who have spent time understanding the landscape in order to recommend to Randy what direction the series should take with regard to engine specification. They recently announced that the future engines will have a maximum of six cylinders along with a turbocharger, which should give the series a great deal of flexibility to regulate the power and allow IndyCars to put on a great show at a variety of venues.
Adapting the power output to the circuit, similar to the way NASCAR does it with restrictor plates, is a great way to make the racing better. This will allow the officials the flexibility to look at racing at a wider variety of tracks, and I think road and street racing will be a lot better when combining the additional power with the added acceleration that a turbo gives you. When you combine this with the capability of having a wider range of available power for the overtake button, we will see more passing when someone makes a mistake. In some respects, you could say it is a trip back to the '70s when we could adjust manifold pressure, which effectively did the same job as the overtake button, and the balance you had to strike between performance and reliability.
The reduction in engine size will also bring the costs down and we need that to achieve the right balance of competitors. I continue to believe that car count should be the driving force, next to safety, for how we should make decisions regarding our sport. This should be the guiding light for the ICONIC group as they make decisions going forward. The series needs to set their sights on what they feel is the optimum car count and regulate the cars, engines and development accordingly. If the car count gets too high, then you start to allow more development and when car count starts to shrink, then the development opportunities need to be minimized in order to keep the costs low for potential participants. For example, there were 37-38 car/driver combinations at Indy this year and Bump Day was as interesting as it has been in years. Who would've ever thought that Paul Tracy would not qualify for the race and Tony Kanaan would only just make it? Those kinds of stories are what have made the Indy 500 so interesting over the years.
Thanks for reading.