Penske’s guar­an­tee

IndyCar fi­nale fea­tures Si­mon Pa­ge­naud and Will Power as the only re­al­is­tic ti­tle con­tenders,

- Brant James @bran­t­james USA TO­DAY Sports

Si­mon Pa­ge­naud and Will Power un­der­stand the im­por­tance of give-and-take.

They ex­em­pli­fied why it can be es­pe­cially im­por­tant as team­mates rac­ing in close quar­ters at high speeds for the most val­ued of all prizes. They had been team­mates, friends and ri­vals as younger men and rekin­dled all three re­la­tion­ships when a pro­gram was cre­ated by owner Roger Penske to bring Pa­ge­naud aboard the Ver­i­zon IndyCar Series’ most suc­cess­ful team in 2015.

And now they reach the fi­nal race of the sea­son at Sonoma Race­way as the only sta­tis­ti­cally vi­able driv­ers who can win the cham­pi­onship. And Penske gets his ti­tle in the 50th an­niver­sary of his team. Ev­ery­one got some­thing from the com­pro­mise that had to take place on the track.

In July at Mid- Ohio Sports Car Course, Pa­ge­naud, the points leader who was en­dur­ing back pain suf­fi­cient to re­quire pre­race epidu­rals, was con­test­ing Power, who had closed to sec­ond in points by win­ning three of the pre­vi­ous four races.

There was the im­me­di­acy of Power, the 2014 series cham­pion, at­tempt­ing to max­i­mize a mid­sum­mer ram­page and atone for miss­ing the first race of the sea­son. They had been sim­ply ri­vals in 2014, when Power mus­cled Pa­ge­naud — then with Schmidt Pe­ter­son Mo­tor­sports — into the tire bar­rier in Long Beach in the sec­ond race of the sea­son.

It’s doubt­ful they were run­ning this cal­cu­lus as they plied Turn 11 at Mid- Ohio, but they un­der­stood who they were aside and what the present and fu­ture con­se­quences could be, in their own bids for a cham­pi­onship and in the es­ti­ma­tion of an owner who pro­vides driv­ers tools and in re­turn ex­pects an el­e­va­tion of the team as in­di­vid­u­als el­e­vate them­selves. Power re­lented. Pa­ge­naud passed him af­ter a restart on lap 66 of 90 and won for the fourth time.

Now, Pa­ge­naud holds a 43point mar­gin as he seeks his first ti­tle. Power can win a sec­ond cham­pi­onship de­spite hav­ing missed the first race with con­cus­sion-like symp­toms and has the ben­e­fit of a dou­ble-points race at a venue where he has won three times. But it’s un­likely they both would have reached Sonoma as ti­tle con­tenders if they had wrecked each other into the grass at Mid- Ohio. By avoid­ing that trou­ble­some in­ci­dent, they set up the fi­nale as an as­sured Penske coro­na­tion. And there is no way to know the pos­si­ble in­ter­nal reper­cus­sions of such an in­ci­dent.

“It’s much harder than fight­ing some­body else (for a cham­pi­onship), be­cause there’s the ri­valry in­side the team,” four-time Champ Car World Series cham­pion Se­bastien Bour­dais said. “It can be a bit toxic some­times. If there is an in­ci­dent at some point, which we had (in 2004 with New­man/Haas Rac­ing team­mate Bruno Jun­queira), then you just have to work with the per­son. De­pend­ing on whose re­spon­si­bil­ity it is or if it’s a non-re­spon­si­bil­ity or a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity, the dy­namic of the group can be pretty af­fected. It’s not easy.”

But Pa­ge­naud and Power seem to be suc­ceed­ing. A dearth of in­ci­dents this sea­son only helped.

“To work to­gether, you need to be some­what re­spect­ful of each other,” Pa­ge­naud told USA TO­DAY Sports. “I re­spect him. He’s a great guy. We’ve known each other so long. We’re go­ing to be team­mates for a while, too, so, I think it’s pos­si­ble to have a good re­la­tion­ship within the bat­tle.” Power con­curred. “I think the older you get, the less you kind of worry about per­son­al­i­ties and all that,” Power said. “You do your busi­ness. You don’t weigh too much on emo­tional stuff be­tween peo­ple. It ob­vi­ously doesn’t mat­ter. You get out on the track, and the best guy is go­ing to win. It’s as sim­ple as that. Who­ever does win, good on ’em, be­cause they de­serve it.”

That’s a cru­cial con­cil­i­a­tion, be­cause in­ter­nal strife fes­ters, Bour­dais said, when one team feels wronged. Ex­cept for some­how work­ing through prob­lems, he said, there is just one other proven way to sort out team chem­istry and ri­val­ries.

“I think it detox­i­fies only when

one clearly gets the edge on the other,” Bour­dais said. “I mean, you see it go­ing back and forth be­tween (For­mula One driv­ers Nico) Ros­berg and (Lewis) Hamil­ton. It was the same be­tween (Fer­nando) Alonso and Hamil­ton and (Alain) Prost and (Ayr­ton) Senna. In­tra-team ri­val­ries are very hard to man­age. It’s just the way it is, and that’s why some teams just de­cide to have a No. 1 and a No. 2, be­cause it’s much eas­ier.”

Team Penske doesn’t op­er­ate that way, though, which has cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion in which the team will have had a driver lead­ing the stand­ings for 43 of the past 44 races af­ter Sun­day. Each of Penske’s four driv­ers has at least tied atop the stand­ings in that time.

“You’re not go­ing to get the cal­iber of guy you want in that other car if you tell him he’s go­ing to run sec­ond,” Penske ad­viser and four-time In­di­anapo­lis 500 win­ner Rick Mears told USA TO­DAY Sports. “(Penske)’s got to keep it a pretty open book, but on the other side of it, hav­ing team­mates is what keeps you dig­ging.

“Your team­mate is the guy you want to beat. That’s job se­cu­rity right there.”

Or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­ture helps mit­i­gate in­ter­nal strife, even as ri­val­ries such as the one be­tween He­lio Cas­tron­eves and re­tired series cham­pion Gil de Fer­ran have oc­curred.

“(Pa­ge­naud and Power) are pro­fes­sion­als. They all get along well,” Mears said. “And this team won’t let that go very far, whether it’s driv­ers, whether it’s me­chan­ics, engi­neers, who­ever. Some­body comes in and stirs the pot, and some­body will set them straight quick, be­cause that’s how a can­cer grows.

“This or­ga­ni­za­tion is very good at nip­ping things be­fore they get very far.”

As Power and Pa­ge­naud, much to Penske’s de­light, get to “have a go” at Sonoma with a team ti­tle en­sured, nu­mer­ous team­mates will be­gin the same net­tle­some process in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup be­gin­ning Sun­day at Chicagolan­d Speed­way. Of the 16 el­i­gi­ble for the ti­tle, 14 will have a team­mate in con­tention. Among them are Penske’s Brad Ke­selowski and Joey Logano.

“Team­mates are tricky,” said Ke­selowski, who said he thought dili­gence helped him main­tain a sound re­la­tion­ship with Logano. “They’re very im­por­tant to your suc­cess as a whole, be­cause they move the whole com­pany for­ward. And, as some­one once told me, ‘You can’t sink half a ship.’ If the ship is tak­ing on wa­ter, you’re in the ship with it.”

The cur­rent IndyCar ti­tle con­tenders were ri­vals from their ori­gins as team­mates to­gether, when Power was the na­tive face and lead driver of the Team Aus­tralia Champ Car team and Pa­ge­naud the 2006 cham­pion of the de­vel­op­men­tal At­lantics Series for the same or­ga­ni­za­tion. That ri­valry, said team owner Der­rick Walker, was nat­u­ral and not un­usual com­pared with any sim­i­lar re­la­tion­ship.

“Si­mon was per­haps in his ca­reer a lit­tle bit be­hind Will in terms of ex­pe­ri­ence,” Walker told USA TO­DAY Sports. “But at the same time, they were fierce com­peti­tors. Just as they are now, they drive each other, push each other. I think, also, it’s hard for a driver to re­ally be big pals with a guy who (they) see has a lot of ca­pa­bil­ity, and that goes for both of them.

“They both rec­og­nize each other’s skill set. And you can be friendly to a point, but it’s war out there.”

Pa­ge­naud’s $2 mil­lion prize money from the At­lantics ti­tle al­lowed Team Aus­tralia to el­e­vate him to a Champ Car pro­gram with Power in 2007. Pa­ge­naud stud­ied Power’s tech­nique and data to im­prove, Walker said, and Power was soon re­cip­ro­cat­ing. Power won twice and fin­ished fourth in points, Pa­ge­naud eighth. There were nat­u­ral abra­sions when they be­gan con­test­ing the same space.

“There were close en­coun­ters where there’s a bit of a ver­bal af­ter­wards,” Walker con­ceded. “They’re driv­ers.”

And they’re team­mates. But this week­end at Sonoma, they’re chas­ing the same re­ward.

 ?? AARON DOSTER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? Si­mon Pa­ge­naud cel­e­brates af­ter win­ning at Mid- Ohio Sports Car Course in July. The race pre­sented a piv­otal mo­ment that was in­stru­men­tal in al­low­ing Pa­ge­naud and team­mate Will Power to reach the sea­son fi­nale as the only ti­tle con­tenders.
AARON DOSTER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS Si­mon Pa­ge­naud cel­e­brates af­ter win­ning at Mid- Ohio Sports Car Course in July. The race pre­sented a piv­otal mo­ment that was in­stru­men­tal in al­low­ing Pa­ge­naud and team­mate Will Power to reach the sea­son fi­nale as the only ti­tle con­tenders.
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