INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always been Roger Penske’s baby. Whether literally or figuratively. From when he showed up here in 1968 until 2019, it was always the Month of May and 11 other months for the Captain.
Then it became real for him. The keys traded hands in January of that year and from that point forward, Penske had ownership of the most hallowed grounds in motorsports. He turned the ultimate flex up to a whole new level. See, his parking space is located just outside of the media center in the shadows of the pagoda. Everyone else’s space is known through initials. Mark Miles’ is MM. Doug Boles’ is DB. Penske’s? It’s 18. Not RP. The 18 stands for Indy 500 victories.
At the time, he had won two straight Indy 500’s. A third seemed likely in the very near future. But, as we sit here today, he’s 0-for-2 and surprisingly hasn’t even been close.
Penske qualified 13-22-25-28 in 2020, finished 5-11-14-22. They’d lead a grand total of 16 laps that day. A year later, they’d qualify 17-21-26-32 and finish 3-12-20-30 with just 3 laps led all day.
19 total laps led in 2 years.
Simon Pagenaud has looked like the best Penske driver the last two years with him leading all three laps last year and 14 of the 16 in 2020. He’s since departed for Meyer Shank Racing, the team that won last year’s race with former Penske driver Helio Castroneves.
They worked so hard between 2020 and 2021 but nothing changed. They worked harder between 2021 and 2022. Will it translate over?
So far they look so. They put all 3 cars on the no tow list on Thursday and literally only focused on qual sims a day early. However, they’ve seen this script before. They felt strong at this point last year but struggled Fast Friday forward.
“Well we definitely feel ready,” Josef Newgarden told me on Fast Friday. “It’s going to be hard to tell where we’re at until we get through Sunday honestly. We felt really confident last year coming out of Thursday going into Fast Friday then things changed literally, pretty quickly within 24 hours. You just don’t know about this place until it’s actually over. We feel prepared. We feel energized. We felt that way last year and feel that way this year.”
Scott McLaughlin agreed.
“Yeah hopefully we can come out pretty strong so we can say don’t wake up a sleeping giant,” McLaughlin told me. “At the end of the day we are very well aware that it’s so competitive right now. Like we’ve said before, it’s all about dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s and figuring out where we thought went wrong. Today is THE day of figuring out if what we thought was true in terms of qualifying. We’re all skeptical right now because of what we thought going into this day last year.”
For McLaughlin, he feels more comfortable now mentally than he did a year ago saying it’s been a bit more comfortable month for him thus far.
“I understand everything,” he said. “How it flows the ebbs and flows of it and you don’t have to put up a big time and just focus on how you feel in the car. Just things that I didn’t do my rookie year.”
Both McLaughlin and Newgarden went 1-2 at the other superspeedway on the schedule earlier this season in Texas.
Penske has started 2022 off as perfect as one could. They won each of the 1st 3 races, started on the front row in 4 of the 5 and have taken 6 of the 15 podiums spots available.
Still, even with all this early success, they’re talking Indy. It’s all about Indy and Indy only.
Even after his Long Beach win, Newgarden instantly started talking Indy even with one more stop at Barber before. He’s as locked in as ever on winning the Indy 500.
“I do. I’m focused on it,” he said of a Borg Warner Trophy. “I can’t do more than what I’ve done in the past, I can tell you that. So I’m not putting extra pressure on myself that I have to do some superhuman feat. It’s for whatever reason just not clicked yet, so I’m just staying the course. I’m going to put effort forward like every year, and I’m going to put myself in position to maybe win the race and I just — one of these years it’s got to work out.
“I would love to do that for our team. It’s a tough one to win. I think that’s what makes it so special. You can go your whole career and not win the Indy 500, and I accept that if that’s the case, but I’m not going to go down without a fight.”
That’s also not good enough for Penske. It’s honestly been rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2022.
“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.”
Can they close the gap this year?