Penske eyeing Indy 500 triumph to make up for last year’s troubles here, why they feel like this could be the year for No. 19

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.”

Tim Cindric noted just how important that 20 wins for Roger Penske are here to him. He’s currently at 18.

“Relative to 20, the first time I came here and raced as part of Roger’s team in someone, obviously we won the race, finished first and second, and I’ll never forget in Victory Lane I said to Roger, You know, this might be 10 for you or 11 I guess it was at that point, 11 for you, but this is something, my father has worked here all his life and never accomplished that,” Cindric said. “Pretty big day for me.

“He looked at me, and he just said, I want 20. I’m just like, in the moment, trying to comprehend one, and he’s already thinking nine ahead.

“I’d love to make all that possible here in a few years. But sometimes you can win this race a few years in a row and it doesn’t choose you for quite a few more years, so you never know when it’s your turn.”

So far this season, they’re 0-for-5 in the win column. They have had a second place finisher in four of those five races, but none of them have tasted victory yet. Will one of their four drivers be tasting milk on May 30?

“Yeah, I mean, I feel more comfortable than I’ve ever felt around here right now, just from experience,” Power said. “And it’s amazing that you keep learning as you go. It’s different every year. The package once again is certainly going to race different. It’s going to be closer, kind of packed-up sort of racing where the top two will switch back and forth.

“I think you’ve got to just put yourself in that position like every year in that last stint. You have to be in that top two on the last restart or the last pit stop, whatever is the last thing that happens.

“Yeah, I feel like as a team we’ve done a lot of work to improve the cars over last year and have a really good chance this year. I think the moment of truth is qualifying to see where the true speed is, and I really hope that we’re all in the top nine.”

Newgarden says that you never know when it’s your day, and that he knows that having driven this place nine times, going into his tenth, that you’ve just got to be prepared for the opportunity.

“You’ve got to put yourself in position here,” he said. “That’s the key element, I think, is giving yourself an opportunity to win the race, and if it’s your day, then you need to seize it.

“Yeah, we feel good. It’s been a blast working with everybody, as always. I’m always excited to be here. Always have fun every single day. Trying to stay calm and collected and make sure you’re absorbing any knowledge you can each day. Whether it’s good or bad knowledge, it all helps you at the end of the day.”

Pagenaud said that while the racing is a bit different from when he won here in 2019, he feels like his No. 22 Chevrolet is close.

“Yeah, I mean, we had an incredible package in ’19, and Chevy power really helped us tremendously all month, all two weeks long really. We knew we had a shot,” he said.

“There are so many things that can happen during the race that you’re not in control of. We tried to take our destiny in our own hands in the race and led a lot, maybe too much at some point, and then it turned back into our hands. It could have gone the other way.

“I think this year we’re close to being where we were in ’19, but I think the whole field is a lot closer. I can’t control the others. I can only control myself and my team, and I think we’re doing everything we can to be in the same spot.”

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