FONTANA, Calif. — With 12 championships in this open-wheel form of racing, Roger Penske is the most successful team owner in big-time IndyCar racing. But only one of those titles has come in the current Verizon IndyCar Series. That was Sam Hornish Jr.’s way back in 2006.
Penske stands a pretty good chance of getting that elusive 13th overall IndyCar title and second in the IndyCar Series this year entering Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway.
With 100 points available in Saturday night’s double points race, Team Penske driver Will Power has a 51-point lead over teammate Helio Castroneves as both drivers attempt to win their first series championship. Simon Pagenaud is the only other driver eligible for the championship but at 81 points back and 16 points going to the last-place finisher, his title chances are extremely slim.
So even the cautious Penske knows that his 13th championship in IndyCar is within reach. And one more victory would be Team Penske’s 400th career win in all forms of racing.
"We have two cars in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship and two cars in that Chase Saturday night," Penske said. "Let’s see if we can’t finish it off."
When Penske left CART at the end of the 2001 season and brought his operation over to the rival Indy Racing League, it was expected his team would whip up on the overmatched IRL teams. Instead, Panther Racing and Sam Hornish Jr. denied Penske and Castroneves the championship in 2002 in a thrilling battle in the season’s final race at Texas Motor Speedway.
More teams left CART and joined the IRL in 2003 including Target/Chip Ganassi Racing with Scott Dixon winning the first of his three series championships that year — adding two more in 2008 and 2013. Andretti Autosport began a successful run of titles with Tony Kanaan in 2004, Dan Wheldon in 2005, Dario Franchitti in 2007 and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012. Franchitti would win IndyCar titles with Ganassi in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Team Penske’s only championship in the current IndyCar Series came in 2006 when Hornish was able to defeat teammate Castroneves as well as Ganassi’s Wheldon and Dixon as four drivers were locked in a tight battle entering the final race of that season.
Nine seasons later, Team Penske gets another chance at a title after coming so close in recent years.
"I think it shows you the competition and our poor execution the last couple years that left the door open and allowed these guys to drive right through it," Penske said. "We’ve raced Chip for many years. He has world-class drivers this year and in the past. To me this will be a big effort for us and it means a lot. Michael Andretti has a very formidable team.
"You can’t win them all. We’ve had a great run so when you look back I’ll take those wins and the poles but the championships are special. To get another one would be a big year for us."
Penske calls the pit strategy for Castroneves and Team Penske President Tim Cindric is in charge of Power’s strategy.
"We race each other every weekend and communicate on our intercom what we are going to do and I ask Tim what he thinks and he tells me so there is full transparency," Penske said. "We want to see one of our cars in the winner’s circle for the championship and that is priority No. 1."
Back in 1994 Penske and Les Richter began a project that would become California Speedway – now known as Auto Club Speedway. When it opened in 1997 it was an immaculate facility that was operated by Penske’s oldest son, Greg. But in 1999 the track was sold to International Speedway Corporation (ISC).
To win the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship at the track he built would be a special moment to Penske.
"As I drove in this morning with Tim Cindric and looked around at all the things we did when we built this place," Penske recalled. "Coming here was a slag pile and an old steel mill with five million used tires. To me, California Speedway is something special. I wish I had never sold it but business is business. To me, it puts on great racing. We’ve made a big difference here for the people who live and work in this area. To win the championship here at California Speedway would be real special to us."
On Saturday night, one Team Penske driver may be celebrating his first career title while another Team Penske driver is going to suffer another bitter disappointment of falling short, yet again. As the team owner, Penske has to balance those feelings.
"I always tell our drivers if one driver wins, the team wins," Penske said. "That’s how we have operated for years. One of the things Tim and I talked about is we’re going to get all of our guys together before the race and tell them it’s a team effort and we didn’t get here without everyone on the team. I’m never disappointed as long as we are competitive. To me if the team wins I’ll feel great.
"I’ll put my arm around Helio or I’ll put my arm around Will and whoever wins I’ll feel great."
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. ET.