Penske’s new driver-engineering programs on the INDYCAR side paying off massively, a deep look on this

FORT WORTH, TX — A few years ago, Team Penske led an overhaul of driver-crew chief combinations on the NASCAR side. Basically, the only thing that remained the same for each team was the car numbers for the drivers. The crew chiefs and pit crews for those said drivers were all swapped.

It at the time seemed bizarre because it’s not like all three teams weren’t performing either. All three Team Penske teams won races and qualified for the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with Brad Keselowski advancing to the Round of 12 and Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney to the Round of 8 . Wolfe, Gordon and Bullins all have NASCAR championship pedigrees with Team Penske as Wolfe claimed the 2012 Cup Series crown with Keselowski and the No. 2 team, Gordon won the 2018 NCS title with Logano and the No. 22 Ford team and Bullins led the No. 22 Ford team to the Xfinity Series owner’s championship in both 2013 and 2014.

Despite that, Penske felt like it was time to spark some energy back into the organization. Unless they’re fighting for titles, which they weren’t at that point, they weren’t there to just be there. Wins are nice. Heck, advancing in the playoffs is expected. Championships is what they’re after and something was just off in not allowing them to reach their full potential. So, a massive change was made.

“As we do after the completion of each season, we evaluated what we can do to better achieve our goals and we felt it was time to make these changes to better position us to reach our potential,” said Roger Penske at the time. “We are fortunate that we have three very strong leaders in Paul, Todd and Jeremy, who work with experienced and talented crews. Pairing each of these winning teams with different drivers and cars should provide new energy and a fresh approach for the 2020 season.”

Well, he did the same on the INDYCAR side between last season and this. They dropped the fourth car and moved Simon Pagenaud’s team over to Scott McLaughlin. It immediately paid off.

McLaughlin, was fastest in Saturday practice at St. Pete. He won the pole as well as the race itself in leading 49 of 100 laps. He qualified second, led 186 of 248 laps this past Sunday in Texas and finished runner-up.

“Really working well with my new engineer, Ben Bretzman, who’s been fantastic for me. Jonathan Diuguid, who I used to work with, he basically helped me to this moment,” McLaughlin said. “He was the one engineer I worked with to this point, and Ben has picked me up and just polished me off a little bit there. I feel good.”

Well, Josef Newgarden had an overhaul too this offseason. That move is working for him as he just won the second race of the year in Texas in topping McLaughlin.

Josef Newgarden has now won 21 times in his INDYCAR career, 18 of which with Team Penske – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

“High turnover on the 2 car. It’s big. We’ve got a lot of people on that car that are just learning,” Newgarden said. “I should temper that. We have people that have experience, too, that are bringing a lot to the table and trying to rally this new crew that we’re working together with.

“There’s a chemistry that you just have to build. Unfortunately I think for some of the people on the team that are new, less experienced in their roles, you can’t accelerate experience, you just can’t. You can try and talk about it. You can try and spend a lot of time, to develop it away from the track. You can’t replace going to the track and doing the job. The experience is what matters. You have to go through these times together.

“Getting a win so early is just going to help the overall morale. It’s going to help the confidence of everyone on the team.”

Newgarden says that St. Pete was disappointing to him. Most was due to the fact that they had a great test at Sebring going into it.

“I felt fantastic heading into the weekend,” Newgarden continued. “A lot of hurdles that weekend on the track. It wasn’t a good weekend.

“I tell everybody, These things happen. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s okay. We’re going to see this at times, so let’s just stay on our plan, keep moving forward, it will eventually get there.”

They certainly did. He’s now fourth in points and within striking distance of another big year.

“Some of these times, even if you don’t feel confident in the way things are going to come together, you have to stay positive because you’re in the situation together,” he continued on. “You’re kind of with a brotherhood there almost. You have each other’s backs. You have to lift each other up.

“I’ve been trying to do that from my side. But it takes everybody. It’s not just me that is going to make the difference. You have to make everyone believe that. When they all do it, that’s what really accelerates the program.”

But, to have won this soon, this early, it’s something that Newgarden isn’t taking lightly.

“Well, look, I don’t think you can discount the tall order that Eric has in front of him,” he said of his new engineer. “I mean, he’s a very smart individual, really great person, good personality, total team player.

“Eric has never engineered a car like this. Not even anything close to this. He hasn’t been in an engineering position like this in, I don’t know, eight years. That position was very, very different than the position he’s in now.

“He’s had a lot to learn, a lot. He is just trying to soak up information from everybody. He’s been leaning on Dave, Ben, all the other engineers. They have done a great job of trying to inject as much knowledge into Eric as quickly as possible.

“The same point I was making before, you can’t force this stuff. You can give Eric a binder with every piece of information he would ever need, he could read the thing three times over before the season starts. Until he does it, he’s never really going to understand it, he’s not going to get good at that instinctual ability he has to have.

“He has a super tall order in front of him. He’s staying positive. A day like today is very validating for a person like Eric. I’m really happy for him. I’m happy for our group. It’s only one race, let’s not get too excited, but this is a good boost for everybody. Eric is doing a tremendous job of being a team player for all of us.”

In saying that, does Newgarden who’s now been in the series for over a decade take on a new leadership role?

“I don’t like saying that I am. It’s inevitable, right?” he said. T”his is my 11th year in INDYCAR. Of course I’m in more of a senior position, I would say, from an experience, observative standpoint. I’ve seen a lot more than some of these people on the team.

“Doesn’t matter that I don’t have an engineering degree, but I’ve been in the trenches working on this stuff with other people and knowing where we’ve been, how we got to where we have gotten to in 2021 or 2022.

“That inherently gives you more of a senior leadership role, I would say. But I don’t think we try and operate that way. Everyone is a leader in the team. You got to get buy-in from everybody. Can’t be just one person holding the torch. We all have to believe that and pick each other up.

“That’s more of the discussions we’ve had in the off-season, is getting everyone to buy into the program. A team effort. When you have the whole group feeling that way, that’s when magic happens.”

It’s paying off for Penske and I’d sense everyone else is paying attention. See, it’s only natural in sports. Success only lasts so long. The ones that remain successful know how to adapt and foreshadow things in the future when maybe it doesn’t seem evitable in the present.

Some times voices get tuned out after a while and a change is needed to provide that spark. It’s working for Penske. They don’t get to 600 wins if it’s not.

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