Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Penske vs Ganassi redux

by Gordon Kirby
This week I've written a pair of back-to-back columns for today and tomorrow. Both columns feature IndyCar's Izod championship contenders Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves. Today they discuss their epic Penske vs Ganassi championship battle. Tomorrow the conversation shifts to IndyCar's new formula and what the drivers would like to see in the new car and engine as far as power, performance and safety. Early last month we learned the basics of the new 2012 turbocharged engine formula and on Wednesday, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Randy Bernard will reveal the 'Iconic' Committee's decision on the Indy car of the future.

Of course, over the past year and a half the Penske and Ganassi teams have dominated, winning all but one race last year and seven of nine races run so far this season. TCGR won consecutive championships with Dixon in '08 and Franchitti last year and Penske decided to tackle Ganassi's powerhouse operation by expanding to a three-car operation this year. Will Power joined Castroneves and Briscoe on a regular basis and in his fourth year racing in the United States and second year with Penske, Power has emerged as the man to beat.

Power won the year's opening two races in Sao Paulo and St. Petersburg and added a third win at Watkins Glen a week ago so that he leads the championship at mid-season with 327 points followed by Indy winner Franchitti (295), Dixon (287), Briscoe (280) and Castroneves (273). The only other drivers to win races at this point of the season are Andretti Autosports' Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan who are sixth and seventh in points. Power says this year's champion will be the driver who makes the fewest mistakes.

"It'll come down to not the guy who wins the most races but the guy who makes the least amount of mistakes," Power remarked.

© Gary Gold
But teammate Briscoe believes the guy who wins the most races will prevail.

"I see it two ways," Briscoe observed. "Yes, you can't make mistakes, but I think the guy who wins the championship is going to have to win lots of races. You look at it so far this year and whenever someone wins a race it makes a big difference.

"I really like this point system because you're definitely rewarded for wins. I got eleven, top two finishes last year and finished third in the championship and the other two guys ahead of me won five races each, which is the way it should be. You've got to win races and I think the current points system makes that necessary.

"You've got to try to win, but you can't win them all so you've got to take the best that you can get. The top seven positions in the championship right now are all race winners and eighth place hasn't won a race. And Will is leading and he's won three races and led the most races."

Briscoe says that as strong as Penske and Ganassi are there are plenty of other quick drivers and good teams in the field.

"From a Team Penske standpoint, I don't see a track where we're not going to be good or able to compete for wins, especially on the road courses," Ryan said. "But it's so competitive this year. In St. Pete we just didn't get the tire strategy right in qualifying and we qualified nineteenth. I didn't screw it up that bad. It's just that we were on the wrong tire at the wrong time. It's so competitive right now, especially on the road courses. You've really got to be on it, especially in qualifying."

Adds Power: "There also seems to be less mistakes made during the races so that there are fewer yellows. People are on their game. There's only one driver who should not be there and everyone knows who that is. But all the way back to that last spot all the drivers are fast. They're all good drivers. It's fantastic."

Castroneves has won just once so far this year at Barber Motorsports Park in April. Helio finished second in Iowa last month but has had more than his share of bad luck.

"We had a strong race at Iowa and we ran very well at Indy," Castroneves said. "There's no question we were very strong in Alabama and ended up winning the race. Those three races were races we had a great chance to win and we did win in Alabama. What happened at Indy was disappointing and Texas cost us a lot of points. Unfortunately, you're going to have racing accidents like that. At Indy, we made a mistake. I can't believe we're going to have to wait one more year and come back and do it. But it helped me to reflect to be prepared for everything, especially towards the end of the race."

© Gary Gold
Castroneves admits to being a little wary about how the fans will treat him in Toronto after his collision with hometown favorite Paul Tracy in last year's race.

"Toronto is a place where I'm a little concerned because of what happened with Tracy last year," Helio remarked. "I'm expecting people to not receive me like they have in the past. But things like that are part of racing. But I'm looking forward to the rest of the season and the road courses and Edmonton is a place where I feel strong.

"We're fifty points behind Will but the good thing is I've been chasing the championship for a long time and I want it as bad as anybody. Cindric and I are looking for the championship and we're going to do everything we can to capitalize on it."

Defending champion Franchitti and teammate Dixon had a slow start to the season before finishing one-two in Kansas (Dixon ahead of Franchitti) followed by Dario's excellent win at Indianapolis. At Watkins Glen Franchitti finished second to Power keeping him second in points.

"It's amazing that with the DNF in Iowa and some of the results we've had we're still right in the thick of the championship," Dario said. "We've had an alright start. In Brazil we were okay and then made the wrong call on tires. At St. Pete I spun on the first lap and the guys still got me back into a position to win the race and I got a flat tire and that put us to the back again. At Barber we were just average and at Long Beach this year I was very average having dominated last year.

"Kansas obviously was good with Scotty winning and us finishing one-two. And Indy for me, was just its own thing. The car was just phenomenal in the race. At this point, that was the high point of my career.

"At Texas we should have done better and at Iowa we had a car capable of winning and had a gearbox problem. So there's been good and bad. It depends on the track and the day. It hasn't flowed yet. We haven't shown our potential or reached what we're capable of. Hopefully, we can do that now and get the job done. You've got to perform. You've got to be winning races because if you're not, they will be, and you'll be blown away."

Other than his win in Kansas teammate Dixon so far hasn't enjoyed the season that he's looking for.

"This season has been pretty average for me," Scott remarked. "To be honest, looking at the points I don't know how I'm even third. I've had one win and Dario winning the 500 was huge, but the rest of the season has been kinda blah. I think that's really fortunate because we haven't reached our peak and I think we can still get some really good results and try to go for the championship. The halfway mark is definitely the turning point and hopefully we can really get going.

"We've had one win each but the rest of it has been kinda of average. We've made mistakes in a few areas which has been frustrating but ultimately we're both still in the hunt for the championship. It's a bit strange. I think places where we've had good speed we've messed it up somehow. And places where we haven't had the speed we've actually come out okay--Barber for example, and St. Pete was the same. I led the race and did two silly mistakes by myself. It's just been weird, really weird."

© Gary Gold
Power and his Penske teammates believe running three cars gives them an advantage.

"It's come down to small details in every way, which includes small driving details on the road courses especially," Power says. "At the end of the day nothing is left on the table. We all look at each other's data and if I was slow here and Helio was really quick there and Ryan was quick somewhere else we can try and put it all together. All those things add up to a better lap time.

"And it happens quicker than normal over the whole weekend. With a lot of teams you might get there in the end, but here it goes bang, bang, bang. The learning and information exchange just happens a lot faster and you've got two quick teammates rather than one. There's nothing better than having tough teammates. When you have tough teammates to beat it teaches you so much."

Briscoe agrees: "You've got to look at every single tool you have and I think the greatest tools we have is the teamwork within, which is promoted from the top not just between the drivers but between the engineers. We really push each other and help each other along. We're always finding time by looking at each other's information and trying to beat each other and we're pushing each other along as we do that.

"In IndyCar the whole paddock has got the same stuff--tires, engine, chassis," Briscoe adds. You name it, it's all the same. So what we need to do as a team is work together so that we push each other and make us better than the rest of the guys. If we didn't work together, we'd be sixth or seventh and that doesn't cut it."

This is Castroneves's eleventh year with Team Penske so he's very familiar with the team's methods.

"To have a successful team you've got to work together," Helio says. "There's no question. If you work together you make it the best way possible for all three cars. Someday might be not your day but if you have enough advantage on the others your worst day will be third. In a series where it's so tight, so close and everybody has the same equipment, it's always good to have three drivers to try different things. At the end of the day we benefit for sure.

"Before me it was the same situation. I didn't know how it worked but certainly Rick Mears always told me the same thing. That's why Mears is still here because he understands how the team works, how the relations work and what you need to sacrifice sometimes. The team is more important than yourself.

"This team has given me great opportunity and great cars. You know you're going to have a very capable car to win races and to compete for victory. I feel that my teammates understand the system. We have a perfect program. Everybody is in a great atmosphere here."

Team boss Tim Cindric expanded on how the system works at Penske.

"Roger gives us the resources to make all three cars happen with the same competitiveness," Cindric said. "It just comes down to people. I think the key really is insuring that no matter how many cars we run each guy feels like he has the chance to win each week and the team feels like each guy has a chance to win. The best thing about this year so far is we feel like we could've won every race that we've run and as long as you have that you'll be in contention.

"The positives are that each guy has won, each guy has been on the pole and each of them are in contention for the championship. I think you can put all five of those guys under a shell and pick one. That's how close it is right now."

Team Penske's failure to deliver on raceday at Indianapolis this year continues to rankle Cindric.

© Gary Gold
"Obviously, not executing at Indy was a negative for us. We had a great month all the way up to raceday and we just didn't execute on raceday across the board. That was certainly the low point of the year so far this year.

"At the halfway point I think poles are nice but you want wins. Certainly the poles show that our guys have the speed, but I think it's harder to win a championship with three strong guys than if we had one strong guy and two weaker guys. It's more difficult to win a championship with three strong guys because you're taking points from each other.

Cindric compliments Castroneves for his discipline and team leadership.

"The common thing for us over the past ten seasons has been Helio," Cindric observed. "Having been in this environment for a long time he understands that you'll get your turn one year and you'll have the opposite role the next year. Briscoe saw that in his first year with us. Once the season got halfway through he knew he was more in a support role for Helio. He understands that when the team does well everybody does well. It takes all the pieces to make it happen.

"Last year the roles were reversed with Helio's tax situation and the fact that he wasn't in title contention at the halfway mark. At that point in time he became more of a support role for Briscoe and when I say that it means more in testing and where you put your focus and where the priorities are for who gets to test and what needs to happen.

"From an open-book perspective I think the biggest influence for us when we chose both Ryan and Will was the chemistry of being able to work together. It's the same process we go through with our race engineers in trying to determine who's going to fill those roles. There are a lot of talented drivers and a lot of talented engineers but the important thing for us is having people who will work together as an open book."

Neither Franchitti nor Dixon are convinced Penske has an advantage with three cars.

"I don't think they do because at one point they're taking points from each other and it's very difficult to run a third car properly," Franchitti observed. "You've got to have the right people and we've got a good thing going here. We work very, very well together. We get quite aggressive with each other on the track and there's no baby-sitting required. It's difficult to describe, but it works well. If you get the right person and do it the right way a third car might improve the performance a little bit, but then you start taking points from each other. But if it's slightly the wrong person it can bring the whole thing down."

© Gary Gold
Added Dixon: "It's the old saying. Two is fun, three's a crowd. But more importantly I think it's the points thing. Even if you look between the two of us winning five races each last year and at a lot of those races the teammate was second or third. You look at different circuits Will ran last year like Edmonton where he took points away from Briscoe and Helio. Even on a part-time basis it still hurt them."

Team manager Barry Wanzer made the point that only one person left Ganassi's team last winter. The rest of the team remains stable and intact with many veteran employees and managers. Franchitti could not be happier with Ganassi's team and Dario says his driving partnership with Dixon is the best he's enjoyed in his career.

"I think as far as Scott pushing me, yes, no doubt," Franchitti says. "And I've had some damn good teammates with TK, PT, Michael, Dan (Wheldon), Herta and Marco, too. I think as far pushing me, this is my thirteenth year and I'm still learning stuff from Scott. It's like, 'How do you do that?' And on the street courses I think I've helped Scott out. So it's been good, absolutely.

"With TK we definitely had a situation where we would back each other up. We were in situations where I was running for a championship and he backed me up and when he was running for a championship I would back him up. But Scott and I have never had that yet because we've both been running for the championship. That's been a little bit different because of the fact you are racing each other. I kinda like it. Scott doesn't like getting beaten. Nobody does."

Dixon agrees with Franchitti about their working relationship.

"I think from the get-go it was pretty natural," Scott says. "I think for me I've been lucky because I've had the same stable team for a lot of years but with a lot of teammates. I learned a lot off Dan for the mile-and-a-half tracks and speedways, and from Dario for the street courses. But across the board in terms of competition and pushing, to be honest, Dario has been well ahead of the rest."

Tim Cindric points out that as much as it's another Penske vs Ganassi battle there are other drivers and teams who can win and challenge for places on the podium.

"We feel like the competition is going to be even more difficult in the second half of the season," Cindric comments. "The competitiveness of the series has increased. For sure, I think after the first few races everyone has done their homework for the second block of road courses and I think it's going to be even more difficult.

"I think the more competitive it is the better it is not only for us, but for the championship. I think having other guys in there mixing it up is good. It becomes a more dynamic championship than, is it going to be Ganassi or Penske? It's good for everybody when we have more than two teams competing to win."

Adds Castroneves:

"We have an incredible team and drivers but because we are half ovals and half road courses now instead of being more ovals than road courses you can see other teams that have maybe not spent that much time in the wind tunnel and things like that, but with talented drivers you see those teams showing a great amount of competition and talent. It's great to have that. It throws a little mix around and makes it fun for everyone."

Tomorrow, Franchitti, Dixon, Castroneves, Power and Briscoe discuss what they'd like to see from IndyCar's new car and engine in 2012.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page