The battle may be fought out on track, but the win is often earned in the pits.
A season finale that sees seven Verizon IndyCar Series drivers eligible for the championship heading to Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma may well wind up being decided by the men who call race strategy for the two drivers atop the standings.
Tim Cindric is the president at Team Penske and serves as points leader Josef Newgarden’s race strategist. Mike Hull is managing director at Chip Ganassi Racing and strategist for Scott Dixon, who trails Newgarden by three points. Both master strategists have been here before.
Hull has been a part of 11 Indy car titles at Chip Ganassi Racing, including sitting on the timing stand for all four won by Dixon (2003, ’08, ’13, ’15). For Hull, it comes down to a winning culture developed at the team’s Indianapolis shop and taken to each track.
“I think we try to win every day,” said Hull. “When you add all those wins up – I'm talking about what we do in the building, what we do at the racetrack, what we do with our partners – it's the whole thing. It's the culture of who we are.
“And I think what winning organizations, sport organizations do – I think it's not just in motorsports, it's any sports organization you see – they work to find new ways to win because the competition, what they do in order to beat you, they normally have to copy you first.
“You have to be very, very cognizant of that as a team, as an organization. You have to find new ways to keep everybody engaged in the process, in this case at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“So I think it's important to be prepared to come back to the building, like we do, and realize seriously it could be the last race we ever won unless we find a new way to win. I think that's how we look at it.”
Dixon is surrounded by Team Penske drivers in standings. In addition to Newgarden, Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power are third through fifth in points. While the odds are strongly in favor of a Team Penske driver collecting the Astor Cup and $1 million prize come Sunday, Cindric takes nothing for granted.
“Yeah, I think if it wasn't Scott Dixon, I would say that our odds are really good,” said Cindric, who called strategy for Power’s 2014 title run. “When you look at the fact that Scott has been there, done that, executed really more than all of our guys combined, I would have to do the math, but he's been the guy to beat when it comes to championships. He's been solid everywhere. You don't see him make any mistakes. He's as solid as they come.
“Essentially, when you look at a three-point advantage, the way the points structure is, you essentially say he and Josef are tied.”
Cindric isn’t overlooking the fact that one of the other Team Penske drivers could win the championship, though each would need the drivers in front of them to falter somewhat. As long as it’s not Dixon – or Alexander Rossi or Graham Rahal, who remain mathematically alive but are longshots – Cindric will be happy.
“We have to be realistic with each other once Sunday starts. How it looks at the beginning of the race might be different than how it looks at the end of the race.
“For us, the mentality is, ‘Let's be sure that Team Penske does its best to execute.’ If Scott goes out there and sits on the pole and wins the race, hey, you’ve got to hand it to him, he deserves it. You have to look at each other and say, ‘You know what, we weren't good enough throughout the year.’
“It has a lot more to do in our minds with how we ensure that our guys are able to race for the championship and have a fair shot at it, but at the same time we keep in mind that we need to ensure that one of those guys is able to end up on the top step at the end of the day.”