Team Penske played no part in this year’s IndyCar silly season. But a recent yet not totally unexpected development should make them reconsider.
Juncos Hollinger Racing and Callum Ilott confirmed earlier this week that they have mutually agreed to part ways. Ilott had been with the team since the 2021 IndyCar season, and he competed full-time in both 2022 and 2023.
The decision was billed by many as a shocking decision, but it’s one that wasn’t totally unexpected. Even aside from the fact that Ilott was never certain of a 2024 return, despite having reportedly signed a multi-year extension in the summer of 2022, the writing was on the wall.
After Juncos Hollinger Racing’s pathetic and relatively meaningless statement in response to the death threats Ilott received from Argentinian fans following his run-in with teammate Agustin Canapino in the Laguna Seca season finale, there was somewhat of a sense that he needed to get out and move to a team that would actually show him some support.
Preferably, that would also be a team with which he is capable of running in the top 10 more than every couple of months.
Could Team Penske be that team?
From everything I’ve heard over the last few months — or years, technically — Roger Penske’s team have no plans to expand to four cars. Having said that, running four cars is not something they have shied away from in the past.
And the 2024 season actually looks quite similar to the 2021 season in that change looks likely at the end of the year.
This would not be unfamiliar territory for the Captain’s IndyCar team.
In 2021, the team added a fourth entry for Scott McLaughlin. Instead of simply waiting until the end of Simon Pagenaud’s contract to let him walk and then add McLaughlin for the third car, they gave the three-time Australian Supercars champion (and the unofficial IndyCar 2020 COVID iRacing champion) a chance to compete as a part of a four-car program.
As a rookie, McLaughlin finished in 14th place in the championship standings. But in year number two, he won three races and finished in fourth. He backed it up with another win and a third place finish as Chevrolet’s top driver in 2023.
That extra year proved paramount to McLaughlin’s development amid his switch from a totally different style of racing.
So how is 2024 similar?
Will Power just saw his 16-year winning streak come to an end in 2023, and despite winning the 2022 championship, the team’s lowest placed driver in the 2023 standings is now responsible for just one of the team’s 15 victories going back to 2021.
His contract is also up at the end of 2024, and at 43 years old, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we have already seen peak Will Power. The suggestion that he is in the same situation that Pagenaud was in back in 2021 is not far-fetched.
More than likely, Team Penske, which had absolutely no involvement in this year’s silly season, are going to need to make a change next year. So why not add a fourth car in 2024, let Ilott develop, and then let really let him loose in 2025 alongside McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden?
There are surely other drivers for Team Penske to consider as Power’s replacement. We know they remain high on Santino Ferrucci, Rinus VeeKay has an expiring contract with Ed Carpenter Racing, Kyle Kirkwood has yet to commit to Andretti Autosport long-term, and who knows how year number two of Alexander Rossi’s Arrow McLaren stint will go.
That’s without considering any Indy NXT talent, so that list will likely grow between now and next offseason.
But with Ilott, you’re getting a driver who can contend from the get-go, and you’re getting a year ahead of everybody else in what is sure to be another chaotic silly season. You’re effectively setting yourselves up to avoid free agency drama come next summer for really the third (arguably more) year in a row.
You’re getting a driver who outran his equipment on a regular basis with a below average team, a driver who qualified for the Indy 500 — and then led laps! — after his car was undriveable in practice, and a driver who has thrived in the face of adversity — even when faced with a demented social media mob and a lack of support from his team.
In addition to the obvious on-track talent and upside, you’re also getting a driver whose off-track character and poise fits the “Penske Perfect” motto. Although it would require a fourth car for a year, the pros far outweigh the cons here for Team Penske.
There are other seats still available for Ilott, but his name hasn’t been linked to any of them as a favorite or a first choice, even amid his release from Juncos Hollinger Racing. Team Penske should capitalize before that inevitably changes.