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Saturday, March 13, 2010

IndyCar Season Preview: Team Penske

It's hard to believe that the mighty Team Penske has not won an IZOD IndyCar Series championship since 2006, when the since-NASCAR bound Sam Hornish Jr. took the honors in a tiebreaker. Now four years removed from that championship, the Penske operation is hungrier than ever for victory.

As such, Roger Penske has made the decision to expand to a three-car operation for the first time since the team's dominance in 1994. Will Power will join longtime Penske mainstays Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves in a third car, created when Penske shut down its sports car operation.

Power joined the team on a limited basis last year, originally to drive its lead No. 3 Dallara-Honda while Castroneves sorted out legal issues, but that lasted only one race. Penske, seeing Power's talent and cognizant of his 2008 win at Long Beach, put him in a car for that race and the Indianapolis 500. Power came close to winning both races, leading the Captain to further expand his program until an incident during practice at Infineon knocked him out for the year.

Castroneves' highlight upon returning to race action was his third career Indianapolis 500 victory, but it was Briscoe that led Penske for most of the year. A highly consistent season bolstered by three wins and eight runner-up finishes put the Aussie in the title hunt all year, but another mediocre finish at Indy and driver error at Motegi eventually gave the title away. Regardless, many view Briscoe as the lead driver at Penske this year, with Power perhaps the number two.

An additional car and changes in the driver hierarchy are not all that's new at Penske. The 20-year partnership with Marlboro/Philip Morris/Altria is now officially over, and the team will run a new livery this year that is primarily white and black. While it has been a few years since a primary sponsor's name actually appeared on the No. 3 and No. 6 cars, Team Penske's Tim Cindric has never been actively searching for a primary sponsor for the team until now. (Power is backed by Verizon Wireless and is exempt from the search.)

It will be no shock if Penske teams take three of the top five positions in points this year, or finally break through to win Penske's second IRL-sanctioned championship. All three Penske cars paced the field in preseason testing, with Power generally the fastest. The two Aussies may take the fight hard to the rest of the pack for the championship.

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