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Penske Back On Its Wheels Following Motown

The 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 did not show what Team Penske’s potential.

Only one of the team’s five drivers managed to make the Firestone Fast Nine, and just two finished the 500-mile distance in the top-six. The efforts where not befitting of an organization that has won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing sixteen times. The view of possible weakness, however, has been squashed after Sunday’s second phase of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

Led by Josef Newgarden, the Captain’s quartet placed three in the top-five at the checkered flag, a bounce back to the dominant form shown when the team claimed three straight wins at Long Beach, Phoenix, and the IndyCar Grand Prix. Then came the 2.5-mile oval, where early it became clear that a lack of horsepower provided by Chevrolet was an issue. Although a dramatic charge from Helio Castroneves salvaged a runner-up finish, Indy was a struggle.

Things started to change positively on Saturday morning at the Raceway of Belle Isle, as Castroneves took the outside of the front row and then rode the wave of momentum to second behind Graham Rahal. Although the Brazilian faded to 11th in Sunday’s second phase, the three-time Indy 500 champion is well within the range of championship leader Scott Dixon as the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway next weekend.

Castroneves’ performance so far in the 2017 campaign, shows that winning is sometimes an overrated statistic. Despite holding second in the championship standings, the Brazilian has yet to win a race. In fact, the veteran has gone 51 events since he ascended the top step of the podium in the second leg of the Detroit Grand Prix three years ago.

Defending Series champion Simon Pagenaud is next on the list entering Texas, on the strength of a victory and four other top-fives finishes to open the season. A 14th-place result in the Indy 500 derailed the run, but the Frenchman is back on the tracks following a fifth-place effort at Detroit on Sunday. Currently fourth on the points table, the pressure on the No. 1 Chevrolet pilot will be to make up ground as opposed to 2016, where he had to fend off pursuers.

Newgarden currently ranks sixth heading for the Lone Star State, a decent showing in his first year with Team Penske. The Tennessee-native has scored top-ten results in all but the two rounds at Indianapolis to date, where speeding penalties and a wreck hampered his efforts. Texas Motor Speedway, however, has not been kind to the young American. He has placed no better than eighth in five tries to date, including an injury-suffering shunt last year.

Amazingly, despite Will Power’s success in years past on road courses, he is behind his three full-time teammates in the eighth spot. The Australian has scored big results in 2017, including a third-place finish at Detroit on Sunday; however, he also has on his record five finishes of 13th or worse in the opening eight shows to date. While 70 points separate the former series champion from Dixon, a plethora of road course events could allow him to narrow the gap before the double-points finale at Sonoma Raceway.

The 2017 calendar has seen three cases of Team Penske control at the head of the grid and based on Sunday’s returns at Belle Isle, a return to the head table in the remaining rounds is certainly a plausible conclusion.

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By Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad.

A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory.

Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.