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IndyCar Open Wheel

Team Penske Left Mark on Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. – As reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud scored the victory, the crowd roared with excitement under the lights at Phoenix Raceway. After returning to the track last year after more than a decade, the open-wheel cars put together another spectacular run at the valley of the sun.

On Saturday night, the Arizona oval hosted its 63rd IndyCar race with the second running of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. The events not only ushered in larger audiences than the year before, but also rang the end of an era as the track prepares to make significant renovations. The revamp of the historic  facility is slated to be completed by November of next year.

“This track is old, in a sense, and even though there’s nothing wrong with the race track, the facility itself, to really to be able to continue to attract fans, you’ve got to really do more than just put on a show on the racetrack,” legendary IndyCar driver Lyn St. James said. “I think it’ll be great for Phoenix and great for the fans.”

Before it became a staple on the NASCAR circuit, PIR was opened in March of 1964 for open-wheel racing specifically. It’s inaugural event, a 100-mile United States Auto Club race with an average speed of 107mph, was won by A.J. Foyt. Due to this and his many other accomplishments in the sport, the winner on Saturday went home the A.J. Foyt Champions Trophy, a special award crafted with Grand Canyon Onyx and encrusted with a likeness of Foyt.

The competition for the victory was tense, but there was one team in particular which seemed unfazed: Team Penske.

The team’s success began early on in the weekend as Helio Castroneves won the pole on Friday night, winning the “Speed King” crown for the second year in a row at Phoenix. He was especially proud to reach this feat at a track he’s won at in the past.

“I wanted that crown so bad,” Castroneves said. “I’m not going to give up that crown, so I’m glad it’s still there. It was great, great teamwork.”

The entire Penske team was also able to make its permanent mark on the track on Friday night as all four of its drivers in the series were invited to sign a 30-foot steel beam that will make up part of the new grandstand.

As the race began Saturday evening, all of the Penske drivers managed to avoid getting caught up in the four-car collision on the very first lap of the race going into turn one.

The rest of the race ran relatively smoothly up until Lap 138 when Takuma Sato made contact with the SAFER Barrier in Turn 4.  The caution worked out in Pagenaud’s favor as he was able to solidify his place in the top spot and hold off the other competitors all the way through the last lap.

“The car was so strong at the beginning of the race that we were able to save a lot of fuel in traffic you know, following Will [Power] and Helio [Castroneves], so we were able to lift a lot at the end of the straight and saved a lot of fuel so we could go longer,” Pagenaud said. “It paid off with that lucky yellow, I’ve got to say. We’ve had our fair share of bad luck this year too, so it doesn’t hurt sometimes to have a little break for yourself.”

Team Penske managed to take home a one-two finish with Pagenaud and Will Power. The rest of the Captain’s quartet – Castroneves and Josef Newgarden – finished fourth and ninth. Their dominance on the night shines through in laps led, as the foursome led all 250 laps en route to the team’s 189th series victory.

The victory also marked Pagenaud’s 10th career win and put him in the lead in this season’s points standings, with all four drivers in the top-seven.

For Pagenaud, the win was especially surprising being his first ever win on an oval track.

“Oval is not my specialty, I grew up in Europe racing go-karts, and I learned about oval only when I was, I believe 26 years old, 25,” he explained. “I had to re-learn the technique, the skill that I didn’t know. It’s incredible, what a win. That was phenomenal.”

With so many changes being made to the track before IndyCar returns next year, Will Power says he’s unsure of how these modifications, including the relocation of the start/finish line to the dog leg, will affect the racing.

“I’m not sure how they can make it how you can pass easier,” he explained. “It’s so difficult, even when you’ve got a strong car. You push like you wouldn’t believe and you just can’t get people.”

Even with the difficulties that Power mentioned when running at Phoenix, Castroneves summarized the weekend for Team Penske best, saying, “We have the moment with the pole position but Team Penske won with Simon [Pagenaud] and congrats to him. Josef [Newgarden] was right there in it as well. We showed that, even Honda looking a little bit strong, we still have a good car and today was proof.”

The next time Team Penske visits Phoenix Raceway, it will be met with a whole new set of challenges as well as fans. But one thing is for certain: Phoenix is a special place for Penske Racing.

Vivian Meza is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL VIVIAN AT vivian.meza@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

By Vivian Meza

Vivian Meza is from San Bernardino, CA. She currently lives in Phoenix, AZ, and is an undergraduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. Meza is also an intern in the media center at Phoenix International Raceway.