WATKINS GLEN, New York – “We didn't get the frickin’ rain! What the heck?”
That was the reaction from Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden at the end of the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen.
An all-Honda top three, with the engine manufacturer’s only title contender, Scott Dixon, finishing second in Sunday’s race, combined with championship leader Newgarden running into trouble and finishing a disappointing 18th in the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet, means the gap between the pair is a scant three points with one race to go.
Part of the reason Honda fared so well was because Team Penske bet on rain hitting Watkins Glen International during the 60-lap race. It never came, which left its drivers struggling to match the straight-line speed of its rivals.
The track was drenched with rain in the morning, forcing the Indy Lights race to be red-flagged at one point. More rain was projected during the Verizon IndyCar Series main event, but it simply never materialized even though INDYCAR called for a “wet start” to the race – meaning every car had to take the green flag on Firestone rain tires.
In the end, setting up its cars to be faster in the wet than the dry meant that the usual quartet of Penskes were absent from the battle up front for most of the race.
“We were really prepared for a wet race, and if it would have been run in the rain, I think we would have been tough to beat,” said Simon Pagenaud, who finished ninth in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.
“But we just had too much downforce to run in the dry and make up the ground we needed to,” Pagenaud added. “Still, everyone on the team did a good job to finish ninth and we come out of Watkins Glen still in the hunt for the championship.”
Teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) echoed the disappointment at getting things wrong, after he managed a sixth-place finish.
“Yes, it was pretty much a wet setup, but a little less drag than Simon,” he said. “It was a real gamble. It looked like (rainy) weather was coming.”
Helio Castroneves in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet was the only Penske to crack the top five, with his fourth-place finish.
While it's pretty clear that the decision to go for wet setups may have cost Team Penske shot at a win, it may also prove to a costly error in the championship battle.
As the Penskes struggled with top-end speed and were often helpless to defend against passes on the long straight leading to the Bus Stop area at Watkins Glen, the Honda-powered outfits seemed to have found the Goldilocks Zone, getting things just right.
“We went with a hybrid setup of wet and dry, a little bit in between,” said third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) of Andretti Autosport.
“All in all, the car was pretty good. Compared to everybody else out there today, we were quite a bit quicker than them. I think the three of us (Hunter-Reay, Dixon, and race winner Alexander Rossi in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda driver) were in kind of a class of our own.”
The good news for fans is that the Penske misstep sets the stage for an exciting battle for the title in two weeks at Sonoma Raceway.
“I think Will closed up a little bit and Simon and Helio are going to be in this, so it's a five-horse race,” said Newgarden.
“There will be a lot of people in it. The team that's more perfect is going to get it done. I know we have the capability to do it, so it will come down to execution, which Team Penske knows how to do, and we will try to make it happen. I think we need to win the race regardless over Dixon, but hey, we've got the lead for now, let's try to keep it.”