INDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske bought the Speedway in late 2019 and 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-3 and surprisingly hasn’t even been close. He’s 0-for-4 in the GMR Grand Prix too.
Heading into last year’s Month of May, Team Penske was off to a successful start to the 2022 season and everyone was talking about them being the ones to win last year’s Indy 500. They had 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.
They were once again, nowhere to really be found in Indy.
That included another winless Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
They failed to lead a single lap a year ago here and now have led a grand total of 19 over the last 3 years (600 laps). They finished 13th (Josef Newgarden), 15th (Will Power) and 29th (Scott McLaughlin).
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.
This was going to be their year right? They looked vastly improved during the week of practice and had all three cars in the top 12 of the four-lap average report from Fast Friday including 3rd and 4th respectively.
“I think Indy, there’s a lot of recipes that can work here, and I think our approach of trying to get the details right has always been true at this team,” Newgarden said on the morning of Fast Friday. “I don’t think we’re going to change that.
“But sometimes there’s different elements that we may not look at the right way, and we go back and we look at them again and say, can we look at them differently.
“I think that has been a core thing for us, just trying to reassess every little detail in the way that we’re examining it, and hopefully we’ve got a better recipe this time around.
“I think our approach is similar to always; this race, this team knows how to win this race. They’ve won it the most of anybody. They’re very successful at doing it.
“I think the core principles need to stay the same as always, but we know we need to elevate our game with regards to speed and we’ve been chipping away at it. There’s been a tremendous amount of effort from everybody. There’s no shortage of effort.
“We’re excited for this weekend. Hopefully we’re going to have enough, and then obviously the big show is next weekend, so let’s see where we land.
“I thought we were on a much better path last year. I think unfortunately we didn’t get to show the full potential of the work that went into last year. I really think we should have had a couple more cars in the Fast 12.
“Generally, not just saying that for trying to paint the picture better, but we made a lot of progress last year, and I think this year is more of an evolution of what we did last year.
“We can go back and pick apart 2022 and we can make it look a lot better I think if things go differently, but we can’t. We landed where we did. Just to reiterate, I think we made a big step, and we’re just evolving within that step again this year. We obviously need a little bit more than where we were last season, and we’re going to find out this weekend if we fully get there.
“I feel pretty confident at the moment that we’ve done a lot of good work to get there, and we’ve just got to execute now.”
Newgarden feels their offseason work has finally paid off. So does teammate Will Power.
“Yeah, we’ve worked extremely hard in the off-season development-wise,” Power said. “Just sort of two days in of running I feel like we’re in a pretty good place, definitely in race work.
“The no-tow laps look good right now, but you never sort of can rely on that. I think today we’ll get a pretty good idea of where we stack up pace-wise.
“There’s so many good team-driver combinations now, people — all these teams turn up, they just improve every year, and the car doesn’t change. So there’s a ceiling.
“I think Ganassi was the top, and everyone is sort of getting up there now. I think it’s going to be one of the tightest qualifyings in history here, especially to get in the top 12.
“I think we’ve done the work and I think Chevy has improved a bit.
However, they once again only got one car through to the Fast 12 Shootout and that’s Will Power taking the 12th and final spot. Scott McLaughlin (232.677 mph) starts in the Middle of Row 5 (14th) and Josef Newgarden (232.402 mph) will roll off in the Middle of Row 6 (17th).
McLaren meanwhile, put two of their three cars to the Shootout last year and finished 2-4-11. All three ahead of the top finishing Penske.
On Saturday, McLaren had all four cars in the Shootout while Penske has one. Has McLaren passed Penske in the pecking order among the Chevrolet camp?
“I think there’s no doubt that they’ve done a tremendous job,” Newgarden told me. “They’ve just excelled. We fell short today. There’s no hiding it. We did not do a good enough job. I can’t speak highly enough about Chevrolet. I think they’ve been tremendous this whole season, particularly tremendous today.
“You can see that by evidence of everybody that was up there. We weren’t missing anything from that side. They’ve been a great partner for us.
“We seem to be able to figure out most situations, but for whatever reason this cruel mistress, she’s just tricking us. I don’t understand how so. I think all of us don’t fully understand it.
“You don’t stop working. I think for us, we’ve just got to continue to put in the work and not have an ego about it. We weren’t good enough, let’s figure out why. Indy is not easy. This is not an easy place to just succeed. I don’t care how many Indy 500s you have, what team you are, there are no guarantees when you show up here.
“We don’t have an ego about it. We have to work hard, come back, do a better job.”
Newgarden says that they’ve not left a single stone unturned in the fight back to the top at Indy.
“Look, there’s no place to hide,” he says. “We’re just not fast enough. We really weren’t. It’s unfortunate. I feel terrible for our team because I’m front and center of being able to witness the amount of effort that has gone into this place. It is just not from a shortage of effort.
“We’re obviously just missing something else. I don’t know how we’re missing it. We’ve worked hard, all of us collectively. We’ve tried to have no ego about it. It’s just not enough.
“I think we’re still short. Unfortunately the weird thing was I think we were more in the mix yesterday. I think the wind plays a big factor into that. Maybe we’re missing something in these type of conditions that we saw today.
“Any way you want to slice it, we just weren’t good enough. We’ve got to go back and really assess again. Unfortunately we’ve been doing that every single year here. What’s most important now is we’re going to focus on the race. I do believe with how tight the field is, as Tony talked about, there’s opportunity anywhere. If you qualify for the race, there’s opportunity anywhere to win this event. We have to put our focus to that now and be able to collect ourselves after the 500 and see what we can do better. I have strong confidence we have great race cars and can be in the fight on Sunday.”
Newgarden has won everything but this race. The 26-race winner in INDYCAR competition is 0-for-11 in this race with just five total Top-10 finishes in it. 3 of those 5 top 10 results were in the top 5 however, but Newgarden has yet to drink the milk here.
Is this his year?
He was ninth fastest in the Miller Lite Carb Day session.
“We just tried to sort of practice race, literally,” he said. “Kind of seems self-explanatory, but I think everyone approaches this last session differently. We just try to do a dress rehearsal from our end and really get into the rhythm of what we’re going to do on Sunday, and I feel good about our car.
“I think the Shell car is quick. I think it feels comfortable. We got it really good at the end there. We’ve just got to be solid on race day as always. Can be no mistakes here, good execution. That’s what it’s going to take.”
Power is one that has won the race (2018). He was quickest in Monday’s practice and third fastest on Carb Day.
“I think Chevy has a bit of an advantage on the power, as well. I feel like we have good horsepower, and I think we’re in good shape. A lot of people who are extremely good, a lot of teams.
“It’s almost going to be a day of no mistakes in the pits and just keeping out of trouble on track to give yourself a shot at the end.
“The package I have, you can run on the gearbox.”
Scott McLaughlin is the relative newbie. He’s only 0-for-2 here but is eyeing his first top 10 on the 2.5-mile oval. He was 10th in the test.
“There’s always room to grow,” McLaughlin said. “It’s been an up-and-down few years, but obviously last year was fantastic in terms of my development, and then this year having a win already before coming to Indy is a nice feeling.
“But as the guys have said, I think as a team, I think we’ve really worked together well between the three drivers, between the engineers, between everybody that’s behind the scenes and put in the hard work to make sure we get speed.
“But also, it’s not just here. It’s all the other tracks, as well. I think we’ve really worked together and the camaraderie in the team has been great.
“From a personal perspective, there’s always times where I can find a bit more of myself, and I’ll continue chipping away at that. New stuff will pop up every year, doesn’t matter if it’s third, fourth or the tenth year.
“I feel like I’m in a good place right now, feel comfortable in the car, feel comfortable here at this place, and hopefully that bodes well for the rest of the month.”
They come to the Indy 500 reeling off of a disappointing GMR Grand Prix which saw them qualify 12th, 13th and 16th and have just one car even finish in the top 10. That comes after winning 2 of the previous 3 races and having 2 of the 3 podium finishers in the race prior at Barber.
I think the Penske’s can show something on Sunday.