INDIANAPOLIS — The odds are out for Sunday’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Go ahead, look at them. Notice something missing up top?
The best odds for them is Josef Newgarden (+1400). He’s ranked in a tie for fourth according to Vegas. The next best is 13th (Simon Pagenaud) at +2200. Will Power is 15th best (+2500) while rookie Scott McLaughlin is 17th (+3300). When’s the last time that the odds came out for this race and only one Penske driver was ranked in the top 12 drivers who oddsmakers say will win?
That has Penske flying under the radar on a track that they’ve always excelled on. So, how do they feel with the tables turned the other way around? Do they like that everyone is sleeping on them?
They honestly don’t listen to the outside noise and are just focusing on themselves. They feel like their cars are great on race trim and that the cooler weather could help them in their downforce decisions which further helps their speed.
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 far, they’re 0-for-5 in race wins this season still and their best qualifier for Sunday’s race is a rookie in McLaughlin as he starts 17th. Newgarden, rolls off from the Outside of Row 7 while Pagenaud is in the Middle of Row 9 and Power on the Middle of Row 11. No one has won this race past the 28th starting spot. Pagenaud is 26th. Power is 32nd. Just seven times in the previous 104 years has someone won this race from 21st on back. The last time?
Only 10 times in 104 years has a rookie winner won including just three times since 1967.
The only driver starting inside of the top 20 is a rookie for them.
The thing is, Penske is puzzled right now. They spent a lot of time this past offseason in fixing their Indy mistakes from last year. As we head into the race, they don’t look any different and they don’t know why.
“We don’t know,” Power told me on what areas do they feel like they’re missing. “I can’t tell you how much of an effort that we put on this race and we just don’t know. They did a great job. We don’t understand. We don’t understand. It’s not from a lack of effort.”
That’s a complete 180 from what he and his teammates were saying prior to that.
“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,” Josef Newgarden told me this offseason. 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.”
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. That’s what makes this month so incredibly puzzling.
“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.”
Here’s what Power said on the same day I talked to Newgarden this past March.
“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 last Friday just how important that 20 wins for Roger Penske are here to him. He’s currently at 18. They look further away from 20 than they’ve been in over a decade.
“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.”
Is it their turn again? Can they come up with a rare Penske upset on Sunday?
“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.”