Andretti had it and lost it. Ganassi had it and lost it. Penske grabbed it and never let go.
After Josef Newgarden drove with authority on Sunday at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and gave his boss three straight wins to open the season, it’s time to give full credit to The Captain and team president Tim Cindric for an offseason move that’s paying off in massive ways.
Together, they grew tired of watching Chip Ganassi Racing run away with back-to-back championships, and so the call was made to tighten the screws, dial the team back from four cars to three, and through St. Petersburg, Texas, and Long Beach, the positive effects of the downsizing have become the story of the early season to date. By taking on less to manage, they’ve reignited the cold efficiency that was missing over the last two seasons. More on that in a moment.
It was Andretti Autosport’s day to break free from its ongoing pit lane dramas as Colton Herta led up to the first round of pit stops. And then it all went wrong with a slow stop that dropped him to third as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou took the lead with Newgarden in tow.
Later, an unforced error by Herta ended his day against the same wall his rookie teammate Devlin DeFrancesco smacked. Making matters worse, the Andretti team’s problems were compounded when a slow stop soured Alexander Rossi’s chance at a top five. If it weren’t for a strong drive by Romain Grosjean to second, Michael Andretti would be searching for an exorcist.
And then things went wrong for Palou, whose final pit stop wasn’t as sharp as desired. The lapse in execution propelled Newgarden to the lead. We also need to give the two-time champ some additional credit for turning in epic in- and out-laps to capitalize on the mistakes made by rival teams. Then he withstood all the pressure Grosjean could muster and proved once again that when he’s got a shot at winning, he rarely misses.
Factor in the stupendous pit stops their crews have delivered this season to go with Scott McLaughlin’s win at St. Pete, Newgarden’s pair of victories, and Will Power’s run of three top fives to open the season – something he hasn’t done since winning the championship in 2014 – and the IndyCar field has an intensifying Penske problem on its hands.
Cindric has long been a vocal proponent for running three cars, rather than four, and so far, the decision has completely changed the team’s fortunes and bent the early stages of the IndyCar season to their will.
“I think there’s something to that,” Newgarden told RACER. “I do feel like that could be the case. And we’ve compacted everything, we’ve narrowed in on a focus and what we need to be, really looking at how we can control the whole group.
“It’s a little easier to get your arms around [it when] it’s three versus four. So I do think there’s a positive impact, short-term, that we’re seeing going from four to three.”
In a team that prides itself in operational excellence and flawless execution, being slightly off in recent years was never going to be accepted. And for what it’s worth, Newgarden wasn’t being critical of former teammate Simon Pagenaud or suggesting the members of former No.22 Chevy entry were dragging the team down.
The improvement we’re witnessing is a result of the Penske organization getting back to the place where it’s most comfortable; growth isn’t the right answer for every team.
“We’ve definitely made a gain by just being able to be more concise and put more effort in the whole thing and get our arms around it. So that’s definitely happening,” Newgarden said. “The big thing at Team Penske right now is I felt like we were super strong last year, but it was more so on the 2 car, and we needed to elevate the whole program and we’ve done that.”
The upcoming trips to Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could turn ugly for the rest of the IndyCar paddock if Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power – who hold first, second and fourth in the standings – stay locked into their current groove.
With an unbeaten Penske team on the march and the month of May on the horizon, the team’s ‘less is more’ approach has proven to be the winning formula.
“We’ve taken a big step across the board,” Newgarden added. “I feel like everybody is firing on all cylinders, and that’s only good for the entire organization. When the whole organization is up, then we’re all lifted. I’m really feeling that effect at the moment.”