It seems that only Team Penske could have three drivers finish within the top six in IndyCar Series points and call it a “quiet year.” Truthfully, the gold-standard organization had a strong 2018 campaign as a whole – amassing 6 wins including the Indianapolis 500 in May – but their three drivers struggled to succeed at the same time.
While 2019 will certainly be an interesting season for The Captain’s crew, let’s first take a look back at the year that was for Team Penske in 2018.
Starting Slow, Building Up
At the outset of this 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Team Penske still held an advantage over most teams with their vast resources and immensely talented driver line-up. With that being said, the group’s power grip on IndyCar had been loosened a bit with the introduction of a new universal aero kit.
Lacking a reliable notebook of data entering St. Petersburg, Team Penske was as close to even footing to start the season as they possibly can be. Judging by the team’s early-season results, the finishes supported that notion.
In the Florida season-opener, 2014 series champion Will Power qualified 2nd but limped home to a 10th place finish. Teammates Simon Pagenaud (2016 series champion) and Josef Newgarden (2017 series champion) started further back before splitting Power in the finishing order by three positions each way: Newgarden placed 7th and Pagenaud 13th.
April’s race at Phoenix was an even greater mixed bag for the Chevrolet-powered team. While Newgarden was strong enough to overtake Robert Wickens in the race’s dying laps to win, Power would make an early exit to finish 22nd while Pagenaud ran quietly in 10th.
For Pagenaud the early-season misfortune was particularly bad, punctuated by a lap one departure after Graham Rahal ran him over in the Grand Prix of Long Beach. By the race’s end, Pagenaud was 16th in points.
A 9th place finish at Barber Motorsports Park would move the Frenchman only one spot higher to 15th in the championship. In seven full seasons of IndyCar Series competition it was Pagenaud’s worst start to a season through four races.
Power wasn’t doing much better following a rain-affected spin on the Barber front stretch relegated him to a 21st-place result. After four races it was Power who was 10th in the points, his worst start to a season since 2013.
Of course it wasn’t all bad for Team Penske – how could it be when you have Josef Newgarden? The Tennessee native traded 1st and 7th place finishes through the first four races of the year, taking victory at the Phoenix Grand Prix and Honda’s Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
Even after an 11th place finish at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, Newgarden still held the championship lead entering the Indy 500. Despite that fact, he wouldn’t be the one making history this May.
A Month for the Record Books
Entering the month of May, Australia native Will Power had already faced a season’s worth of adversity in four races. The 37-year-old had two finishes outside the top-20 to go with a runner-up finish at Long Beach and a top-10 at St. Petersburg.
It had been all or nothing early on for Power, similar to a home run hitter in today’s modern era of baseball. To steal another baseball term, when Power is on, there is no way to pitch around him.
The field witnessed this first-hand in the INDYCAR Grand Prix as Power led 56 of 85 laps before taking victory in the Speedway’s road course counterpart. It was the 200th Indy car victory for Team Penske.
Power became the first three-time winner of the IMS road course event and was looking to become the first driver to win in both disciplines (road and oval) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Boy did he ever come through.
Facing nearly the hottest Indianapolis 500 on record, Power masterfully guided his car through the mayhem that claimed many veteran drivers – including his own four-time Indy 500-winning teammate in Helio Castroneves.
In the 200-lap slugfest, Power led at the start/finish line 59 times – including the all-important final lap.
Finally, Power was an Indianapolis 500 winner – and able to disperse what seemed to be the final knock on a career that now seemed complete. At the same time he had granted Roger Penske with his 17th Indianapolis 500 win, further extending The Captain’s stranglehold on Indy 500 excellence.
Somewhat lost in the chaotic victory lane celebration was the fact that Power had utilized the double-points payout in the Indy 500 to launch all the way to the top of IndyCar’s points standings. Top-10 finishes by Pagenaud (6th) and Newgarden (8th) had the team moving in the right direction, seemingly heating up with the summer sun.
As Team Penske left Indianapolis, it seemed the three-car unit was finally beginning to figure out this whole universal aero kit thing. Each driver was inside the top-1o in points for the first time this season, and racing at Belle Isle has been a second homecoming for Roger Penske recently.
What followed would be another step backward.
While Power was able to muster finishes of 7th and 2nd to retain his points lead, the doubleheader was less kind to Pagenaud and Newgarden who averaged a finish of 12.75 in their combined four starts.
Racing in “No Limits Texas” hardly healed the consistency struggle. After grabbing his second pole award of the year, Newgarden made a slew of pit road mistakes that relegated him to a 13th-place finish.
Third place starter Power was strong for most of the night, though a run-in with Zachary Claman de Melo ended Will’s night on lap 204.
Running well inside the top-10 at the time of his accident, Power would place 18th once the smoke cleared. His championship lead evaporated just as quickly as it had been captured with more regression on the horizon.
In the next four races at Road America, Iowa, Toronto and Mid-Ohio, Power finished 23rd, 6th, 18th and 3rd, respectively. Keeping with the team’s theme of inconsistency, Simon Pagenaud would have his best stretch of the season at that time with results of 7th, 8th, 2nd, and 8th respectively.
Newgarden would win the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America while adding two 4th place finishes and a 9th in that four-race timespan.
Despite the up-and-down nature of the team’s season, somehow each driver was inside the top seven in IndyCar Series points following the checkered flag at Mid-Ohio.
The Home Stretch
Entering August’s race at Pocono Raceway, a fierce championship battle between Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi still included Newgarden and Power as eligible contenders should the two Honda drivers falter.
At the Tricky Triangle, each Penske driver avoided the multi-car pile-up on lap 6 and ran relatively well. Power backed his 3rd place run at Mid-Ohio up with a 2nd place finish at Pocono.
That kept the Aussie driver solidly in the championship’s 4th place slot entering the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, a race Power would go on to win. The No. 12 Verizon driver jumped to 3rd in the points, his highest mark since early June.
Runs of 8th at Pocono and 4th at Gateway slid Pagenaud up to 6th in the championship – his highest standing since of the season – while Newgarden turned in hard-fought results of 5th and 7th, respectively, to enter the season’s last two races at 4th place in the championship.
In IndyCar’s return to Portland International Raceway it seemed that each Penske driver faced some sort of adversity.
While Power would snatch the pole award in an exhilarating Firestone Fast Six session, the 2007 Portland race winner could complete only 98 of the scheduled 105 laps en route to a 21st place finish.
On the flip side, Pagenaud struggled mightily in qualifying before finishing well in the race. The 2016 series champion qualified 22nd in the 25-car field and proceeded to march through the chaos to an impressive 6th place result.
And then there was Newgarden. Somehow the defending series champion kept himself in the title chase even after finishing a lukewarm 10th place. He moved from 4th to 3rd in the points (tied with Power) and somehow lived to see championship weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
In the final race at Sonoma (for this season and beyond), Team Penske was good but not great. It was a microcosm of their season.
Newgarden did his part to start the weekend by qualifying on the inside of row two. Power just missed the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying – therefore starting 7th on championship Sunday – with Pagenaud lining up beside him in row four starting 8th.
Each of the three veterans finished on the lead lap while racking up three top-10 finishes. Grabbing the team’s 13th podium on the season was Power, who placed third. Finishing just behind Willy P was Pagenaud in 4th, with Newgarden finishing his season with an 8th place run.
As the Sonoma dust settled, Power wound up 3rd in the championship with Newgarden (5th) and Pagenaud (6th) filling out the year’s Fast Six.
It wasn’t necessarily a terrible season – and an Indianapolis 500 win heals many wounds – but Team Penske wasn’t immune from widespread struggle and misfortune in 2018, and it showed.
Even after Power’s breakthrough at Indy and his runner-up run at Belle Isle in June, he never truly felt like a championship threat in 2018.
After Power led the points following Detroit’s second race on June 3, a Penske driver never paced the championship again.
How rare is that? You’d have to go all the way back to 2008 to find the last time that a Penske driver failed to lead the championship at any point in the season following race number eight. Every year since 2008, Team Penske had a driver lead the championship at the season’s mid-point or later, except for 2018.
Essentially, the team was shut out down the stretch in a way we haven’t seen in a decade.
So while it’s not yet time to hit the panic button, it’s easy to imagine that the heat will be on Team Penske to hit the ground running in 2019. Indianapolis 500 wins can only cover up so much, and eventually, that alone won’t be enough.
Header image by Dana Garrett/INDYCAR.