IndyCar: The advantage Team Penske may no longer have

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Indy 500, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Indy 500, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports /

In the last decade and a half, Team Penske have only won the IndyCar championship when they have also had the driver in second place.

Eight races into the 17-race 2023 IndyCar season, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou has opened up a 74-point lead in the championship standings, basically a win and a half, over teammate Marcus Ericsson. Palou has won two races in a row and three of the last four, and he has reeled off seven straight top five finishes.

He hasn’t finished lower than eighth place this season, and he owns this massive lead despite the fact that Ericsson himself hasn’t finished outside of the top 10.

Ericsson has scored more points this season than he had scored at this point last season, had the Indy 500 not been a double points race (like it wasn’t this year). He was the points leader through eight races last year.

With nine races left on the 2023 IndyCar calendar, there is just one Team Penske driver within 120 points of the championship lead.

That driver, Josef Newgarden, sits 81 points back. For context, the biggest deficit that can be overcome in a single IndyCar race weekend is 54 points. Without any unexpected absences, it’s 49 points.

So Newgarden is basically two races back.

DraftKings Sportsbook, which is offering IndyCar fans an instant $150 for signing up and placing a single $5 bet, lists his odds at +550 to win the championship, tied with Ericsson behind only Palou (-300).

You have to go back to 2007 to find the last time Team Penske entered a season finale without a driver still mathematically eligible to win the championship, though technically that would have been true in 2018 if not for the double points format that was used in season finales from 2014 to 2019.

And you have to go back a year further, when Sam Hornish Jr. won the title, to find the last time Team Penske won an IndyCar championship without also having the runner-up in the standings.

In 2014, Power beat out teammate Helio Castroneves. In 2016, Simon Pagenaud beat out Power, with Power managing to place second despite missing a race. Castroneves rounded out the top three for the Captain’s team.

In 2017, Newgarden led another Team Penske 1-2 in his first season with the team, taking the crown from Pagenaud. The same top drivers ended up in the top two just two years later in 2019. Then in 2022, Power beat Newgarden.

This year, they don’t have the advantage of having multiple drivers in championship contention, barring some out-of-this-world second half resurgence. And when they haven’t had this advantage in the last decade and a half, they haven’t won a single title.

First things first. It says a lot about the strength of Newgarden that he is the newest Indy 500 champion and one of just two multi-race winners this year — and he is still on pace for his worst finish in the standings since 2018. It’s bizarre to even think about from that perspective.

But other than Newgarden, Team Penske have been a disappointment this year.

Yes, Scott McLaughlin won at Barber Motorsports Park, but he doesn’t have any other top five finishes. Many viewed him as a top championship contender this year after a breakout 2022 season, but that simply hasn’t materialized.

Reigning series champion Power has two podium finishes but just two other top 10 efforts, a stark contrast to the consistency he rode all the way to a second title last year. Power won only won one race in 2022, something that hadn’t been done by a champion since Tony Stewart won the 1996-97 championship.

He utilized his consistency and an ability to get the most out of non-winning days to beat Newgarden, who became the first driver to win five races in a season since Pagenaud in 2016 — and the first driver to win that many in a season and not win the title since Power won six in 2011.

Even five wins in the final nine races may not be enough to get Power back into this year’s fight. His chances to become the first repeat champion since Dario Franchitti won three in a row from 2009 to 2011 appear to be all but out the window.

On the flip side, like Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing have won five of the last 10 championships. Yet they have not finished 1-2 in the standings a single time during that span.

While Team Penske’s five most recent championships have all been 1-2 finishes, Chip Ganassi Racing haven’t finished 1-2 in the standings in any of their most recent seven title-winning season. Their most recent 1-2 finish came in 2009, when Franchitti held off Dixon in a championship that could have and probably should have gone to Team Penske and Ryan Briscoe.

Without multiple drivers in the fight, will Team Penske have a chance? Can Newgarden overcome an 81-point deficit to Palou?

It’s not out of the question, but it won’t be easy.

Newgarden, who has finished runner-up in the standings in each of the last three years, did reduce a 117-point deficit to Dixon to 16 points in the final six races of the 2020 season, beating the six-time champion in each one of those events to close the gap, despite the fact that Dixon himself finished in the top 10 in every race during that stretch.

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The ninth race on the 2023 IndyCar schedule, which marks the halfway point of the season, is scheduled to take place on Sunday, July 2. This race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio presented by the all new 2023 Civic Type R, is set to be broadcast live on USA Network from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where each active Team Penske driver has won since 2020, beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET. Begin a free trial of FuboTV now and don’t miss it!