INDIANAPOLIS — An Indy 500 win and a championship. That’s the top two goals for any NTT IndyCar Series race team. But for Team Penske, those aren’t lofty goals. Those are realistic. When they don’t win either, as was the case for 2020, it means they take it personally.
So, how do you balance those goals? Putting too many eggs in the Indy basket can compromise success elsewhere and vice versa. How do you go all in at trying to make the gains to win at Indy, but not lose ground elsewhere a vie for a championship?
That’s the challenging part of INDYCAR racing. There’s superspeedway’s. There’s short ovals. There’s also road and street courses too. Everyone is trying to improve on areas to where they’re bad at, so even if you’re good in one area, you can’t rest on your laurels. For an organization like Team Penske, you can’t go all in and try to win the Indy 500 but risk a decline in stats for other tracks either.
“It’s a balancing act, for sure. That’s a good point,” Josef Newgarden told me. “You have to try and understand, when you push resources one way, how does that affect everything else. I think for us, we’re pretty good at balancing that formula.
“Indy is a really tough track, not only because it’s the most important race but I think because it’s all about very small details, and those little details take a tremendous amount of time and effort to move the needle. It’s all these little things that add up at the end of the day when you show up in the month of May. It takes a tremendous amount of time to make large progress at Indianapolis, whereas at another track you may find a small difference or small change with something that you found that didn’t take nearly as much energy or money or resources.
“I think you can have these bigger magnitudes of shift at a place like a street course or a road course compared to Indianapolis. Indianapolis really takes a ton of time, ton of resources to make those little incremental improvements forward. That’s why we emphasize trying to get that right. For us, it was skewed last year in that Indy was probably one of our worst tracks. There’s no doubt. We didn’t perform like we wanted to at the 500 from a qualifying standpoint and race standpoint. I think that’s why we’ve heavily leaned to get that right in the off-season.
“We haven’t left anything else behind. We’re still pushing forward on all the other fronts because we need to be strong across the season.”
Newgarden has won two NTT IndyCar Series championships to his credit. He nearly won a third last year. But, the one thing that’s nagging in the back of his head still is the lack of an Indy 500 win. Newgarden, is 0-for-8. He does have four top 10’s in his last five starts there, but that lack of taste of the milk in victory lane isn’t quenching his thirst.
“We want to win an Indy 500,” Newgarden said. “For me specifically, that’s a big goal. I’ve not won that race. Obviously as a team, we’ve had a lot of success there. They’d like to add to that. For me, I’d like to get my first.”
See, Penske is synonymous with Indy success. Heading into 2020, Roger Penske had just purchased the place. He figuratively and now literally owned victory lane. But, Penske’s cars struggled on track in August. They finished P4-11-14-22. They were rarely found up front on any speed chart all month.
That’s not good enough for Penske. It was honestly rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2021.
“Last year our qualifying form was not strong,” Newgarden continued. “We were all disappointed with our speed. That was first and foremost. How do we fix the speed of the cars from last season? There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s been put in. We have the best of the best in my opinion when it comes to talent and personnel. There’s been no shortage of effort and time to make these Penske racecars as fast as possible. That was first and foremost.
“Then I think the race condition of the car, how does it really work across 30 laps on a set of tires in multiple-car drafts? That’s probably the most important ingredient nowadays is just figuring out if you get buried 10 or 15 cars back, how is your car reacting in that much dirty air. That was something we needed to be stronger at.
“Just outright speed and the car’s potential in a big wake. That’s all different this year, too. We tried to learn where we were deficient last year, but now we also need to figure out where we need to be better in the future with the new aero parts. Quite a bit of difference with not only the front wing but the underside build of the car aerodynamically. There’s going to be some new elements. The car is going to drive different. We need to be better all around.”
Will Power, Newgarden’s teammate, agreed.
“I feel pretty good about definitely being better than where we were last year at Indianapolis,” said Power. “I think that’s probably the most disappointing we’ve been since I’ve been at Penske. It was a surprise to us. Certainly worked very hard on that.”
The goal is clear – Indy improvement. The next goal is clear – a championship.
“Then the championship as well, yeah, we’re looking for another one,” Newgarden continued. “Obviously I was hoping we were going to win our third championship last year and we could be working on the fourth. We’re going to have to go back to square one and try to knock the third off this season.”
Newgarden came from 117 points out to nearly win his third championship in four years. Still, he’s trying to take the good from 2020 and block the bad out. It stings too much for the kind of year that he had in terms of bad luck. You take that bad luck away, he likely won this championship by a mile.
“I’ve tried to wipe last year from my memory as best I can, at least the tough parts,” he said. “I felt like our momentum was quite consistent throughout the year, at least from a performance standpoint. We could just not seem to catch enough breaks. That’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes things just go your way without even realizing why; you can’t seem to do anything wrong. Some years you seem to be on the wrong end of the stick half the time.
“I feel like last year was one of those years. We were just in the wrong place, wrong time, a little too often. You have that happen just one too many times, basically what happened to us is the result of it.
“Yeah, we had a good run at it. I felt confident in what we could do every weekend. I felt like that in the beginning of the year, the middle and the end. I’m not trying to just ride the end-of-the-year momentum. I think the consistency we’ve had year over year is really strong. We need to keep that going. I think from year to year it’s been really good.”
Power, also made a big comeback last year in terms of the championship. He had no wins in the first nine races and just two podiums in the first eight. Then, he really turned it on after. He said that in order for him to compete for his second championship, his start to 2021 has to go way better.
“It actually does feel a little bit that way, you know, considering we’ve started the last four seasons in a really bad way,” said Power. “It certainly isn’t speed that’s the issue. It’s our bad days are just too bad. Our bad days are DNFs and multiple laps down. They’re not like a 10th place or a seventh place, and that’s our problem. The speed is certainly not. Winning is certainly not. Consistently, whether it’s mistakes on pit lane or mistakes by me, you just — we have to have a solid beginning to the season — I mean, you’ve just got to have a solid season, and that obviously includes the beginning.
“I said it last year, it’s a huge focus, and that did not happen for us. This year, again, if we can just have a solid first few races, I think it gives the team confidence and myself confidence.”