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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

25%: Penske Renaissance Paces IndyCar

When your name is Roger Penske, winning is not a goal, it's an expectation. Your race teams prepare meticulously for battle on any given weekend. Failure is not an option. If you underperform, you will be released from your contractual obligations, and your entire team may even be shut down. And next year, somebody else will come in, replace you, and do your job better.

2009 was a so-so year for Team Penske. Its NASCAR operation featured one solid car and two laggards, and its Grand-Am operation was never quite as strong as it was in the American Le Mans Series in previous seasons. For the third consecutive year, Penske's IndyCar team failed to win the championship, as Ryan Briscoe's incident in Motegi helped wipe out what should have been a comfortable lead.

This year, Penske's NASCAR operation has flourished as the only Dodge-backed team, placing cars in victory lane in each of the top two series and asserting itself as an early championship contender. The Grand-Am operation was converted into a third IZOD IndyCar Series team for Will Power, and he has responded by winning two races and finishing no worse than fourth. Helio Castroneves won the third race of the season, and Ryan Briscoe was strong at Brazil.

All of this came after the Penske trio, in their first season without Marlboro livery on the cars, dominated preseason testing.

That's how you run a race team.

Power has led laps in every race thus far this season, making him the only driver to do so. In fact, he has pretty much dominated from the get-go. It's a good thing, too, as his relative lack of oval experience may prove a factor if his massive points lead begins to slip.

Castroneves has been solid if not spectactular, backing up his win at Barber with three more top-10 finishes. He currently sits second in points, 42 markers behind his teammate. But of drivers on the "big two" teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, Briscoe brings up the rear, sitting seventh in points. He threw away the win in Brazil, but had he not crashed out of that race, he'd have 137 points to Power's 162, and the championship would be a little tighter, with Penske cars running 1-2-3.

That's how strong they've been.

The next four races of the season, all ovals, should pose little threat to that dominance. Last year, Castroneves won at Indianapolis for his third 500 win, and Penske's 15th win at the speedway. He also won at Texas. At Kansas, Texas, and Iowa, a Penske car finished second, with Castroneves taking silver at Kansas and Briscoe doing so at the other two events. Their 1-2 finish at Texas was the team's lone sweep of the season and first since Sonoma in 2008. Power's lone start on these four tracks last season was at Indy, where he finished fifth.

If history holds true, and if its early season form holds up, we should see Team Penske continue to do what it does best over the next couple of month of the season - win, win big, and win just about everything there is to win. All three drivers are legitimate championship contenders, and it will be nothing short of a major disappointment if one of them does not take the title.

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