Tony’s Team Penske-Dominated XPEL Grand Prix Road America Post-Race Notebook

By Tony DiZinno

The story coming out of Sunday’s XPEL Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., as it has been most of this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, was Team Penske.

Today, though, it was largely about an overall team achievement story rather than any controversy.

Not that the story that has enveloped the team from the start of this run of on-track activity in mid-April, post-Long Beach leading into Barber and running through the suspensions of four personnel in the month of May didn’t come up.

But it seems marginally further in the background than it did even two weeks ago.

Perhaps the weekend’s drama shifting further down the paddock to Juncos Hollinger Racing after the Agustin Canapino/Theo Pourchaire contact in Detroit and subsequent fallout with Canapino’s in-weekend absence brought the winds of change in terms of hot topics.

By day’s end, that was a distant memory compared to Friday.

Penske 1-2-3, and How Much Has Changed Since Sonoma 2017

Today’s Team Penske 1-2-3 finish was its first since Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Will Power did so at the 2017 IndyCar Series season finale at Sonoma.

Though two of those podium finishers are the same as today at Road America – albeit in different order – much has changed in the paddock since that point.

That race was the last with manufacturer aero kits before the new Dallara UAK18 – Universal Aero Kit – premiered in 2018 and well before the Aeroscreen was added in 2020.

This race weekend marked one year since Simon Pagenaud’s last completed IndyCar race weekend. The driver that joined the trio at the tail end of 2020 and full-time in 2021, Scott McLaughlin, took his spot in the podium rotation.

Newgarden won the championship that year, in his first year with Team Penske. Power was completing his eighth full-time season with the team, and also only had one title (2014).

Sonoma has been off the schedule since 2018. Although the pandemic affected the 2020 and 2021 schedules, there have been three other locations (Monterey, St. Petersburg, Long Beach) that have hosted the finale since, with a fourth in Nashville set to do so this year with the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the Nashville Superspeedway oval.

There were 22 cars in that race. There were 27 today.

That race was the last I covered for NBC Sports’ digital site. Now I freelance in racing and have worked outside of it full-time to gain greater clarity and perspective outside the bubble.

You get the point.

What hasn’t changed? The preparation and performance of the entire Penske outfit.

All three drivers overrode their own personal races (we’ll get to those in a minute) to hail the team in multiple media mentions.

“Ultimately we’re race drivers, we want to be the guy. Will is a phenomenal teammate. Josef would concur. Still bloody dead fast. It is awesome to see,” McLaughlin said.

“I think most importantly, to have a team 1-2-3 in this day and age, it’s hard. Like, that’s great that Will won. I think the most important story is 1-2-3 for the team. It’s crazy to do that. It hasn’t been done for a long time. I’m really proud of everyone.”

Newgarden, sat next to his one-time “Bus Bro” in the post-race press conference, concurred.

“Great team day. I think we’re all going to be really pleased with the 1-2-3, especially with the 2 car and the disaster yesterday. It was a real team effort to put a new car together. Everybody pitched in, the 12, the 2 and the 3,” said the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time series champion.

“Really rewarding I think for the entire crew when you have to go through something like that, put it all together, we finish 1-2-3, it’s as good as it can get.”

Power, in separately, also spoke to that – but did so in the context of, unprompted, defending the actions amidst the push-to-pass scandal that dominated the headlines and sent four team members into a team-imposed suspension.

“Obviously Indy was a great result for Josef to win it, but then also lock out the front row. I predicted that,” said Power, who first publicly called the shot at Long Beach. “I know how hard the guys are working back at the shop.

“The whole push to pass thing was just an unfortunate incident. There was nothing malicious in it. There was no intent. No one intended to do that. Just habitually I think people press that at times. I think the whole field would have pressed that button at some point subconsciously in a restart. It just looked bad for us.

“Yeah, to come back like that at Indy, then 1-2-3 today. Really, I feel like we’re performing at our highest level right now. That includes Chevy. Chevy’s done a great job with the engine. I think we struggled a little bit last year compared to Honda. They went away, did their homework. So did we. Together we have a very strong combination.

“Yeah, like Roger said, I feel bad for Roger, that whole thing that happened. Just one of those things. If you’re a team like Penske, people like to pound you if something like that happens. ‘Ha, ha, we knew that’s how you guys are fast.’

“I know how much work goes into it. I know they don’t even venture into the gray. It frustrates me at time because I know other teams do. But they will not do that just because of that brand. Roger won’t allow that brand to be tarnished with cheating allegations.

“We don’t do that. There’s a lot of talk around the paddock. I know we don’t do that. I know other teams do because people push the rules. If I was a small team, I’d be doing it. That’s how you get a slight advantage.”

Later on, I asked Power about how strong Team Penske is now, compared to other times throughout his now 16-year tenure. He is in the midst of his 15th full-time season since 2010, and 16th counting his part-time debut in 2009.

“Like, if you take in sports car, NASCAR, INDYCAR, they’re really firing,” Power told TSO. “They’re at their highest level now. The competition has changed, as well. You have no choice but to be at your highest level now or you simply won’t win.

“Just the car preparation, quality control. It’s so detail orientated now to win in this series in particular, but the same in NASCAR, sports car. It’s a very tough business. If you’re not winning, you won’t last long.”

A Very Reflective Will Power

Having covered Will Power off-and-on since 2007, his second year in Champ Car, I’ve seen a lot of Will Power press conferences. Most of them winning.

I’ve seen him humorous. I’ve seen him lackadaisical. I’ve seen him angry. I’ve seen him sarcastic. I’ve seen him well-imbibed. I’ve seen him in some combination of those.

Yet I cannot recall one as overly reflective, almost somber, and more relieved as he was today in the Road America media center.

For one, this win in the No. 12 Verizon Business Team Penske Chevrolet was his 42nd – it tied him with Michael Andretti for fourth all-time – and all but four of them have been in a Verizon-sponsored car. There’s only A.J. Foyt, Scott Dixon and Mario Andretti ahead of him.

“That was the next one I wanted to get. That was the one I’d been wanting for a while,” Power said. “To surpass Michael, big fan of Michael’s as a kid. Watched him win a lot of races. The Andretti family, such a big deal, such legends of this sport. Anytime your name is around those guys, it’s a big deal. Cool to be equal with Michael.”

And then, there’s the life element. As I have discovered in my three years since leaving working in racing full-time, contributing here and there over the three years since, there is so much more to life than racing. That goes against the whole “racing is life” quote or mantra, but for Power, life was so much more than about racing in 2023.

While Power was animated to a vintage level of anger at Scott Dixon, Romain Grosjean and even the Road America track, in particular, at the 2023 Road America weekend, it was for good reason.

As written by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dave Kallmann in advance, Power’s Road America 2023 was a low ebb, a nadir of sorts, as wife Liz Power’s health situation was scary. Power explained it in full to those in attendance in the media center today, as wife Liz and their son Beau celebrated in victory lane together.

“It was a very stressful weekend because I left thinking that Liz was sick again. I left. She was looking in a glass. Actually getting in the car, had booked a private plane, because that’s the only way she could travel. Get in the car, she looks down and says, Look at all the worms in that cup,” he said.

“I’m like, Oh, s—.

“Mother-in-law, I said, ‘You have to stay here. We already booked this plane. Taking off now. I’ll go, call you on the plane.’

“All weekend she’s going back and forth to the doctors. Turns out she mixed some medications. Hallucinations. That’s how it all started, hallucinations.

“Stressful, yeah, this predicament. Should I race or not? Then you crash bad. That’s why I was so I guess angry or just stressed. Anything set me off. Grappling with that.

“Yeah, that’s life. People have it way worse. I’m not complaining. People have it way worse. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

“You start thinking. When that was going on, you start thinking should I be racing at all. If something happens to Liz and something happens to me, is she going to get better, what’s going to happen. The doctor said this can come back at any time. Should I be racing? That was the thing that was planted in my mind last year.

“You certainly don’t perform at your highest level because you don’t want your son to have no parents. That is sort of the thing you’re thinking. Yeah, tough wrestling with that. Ultimately, yeah, if she wasn’t getting better, I would stop. I would have to stop for my son. Simple as that.”

He was reflective on other elements too, but reiterated he’s found the same mental gear he had in 2022, when he switched up his mental state and won that year’s championship. Today’s win put him back in the points lead.

A Very Second-Placed Josef Newgarden

Elkhart Lake, WI – during the XPEL Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Joe Skibinski | IMS Photo)

Given the way the St. Petersburg disqualification affected those results, today’s runner-up finish was actually only the second podium finish in seven races for Josef Newgarden.

Newgarden did not hide his disappointment at ending the same spot as his car number, second, in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, and keeping his Road America win record stuck on two.

“We sort of gave that one away. I mean, I will say this, too. I felt like we gave it away, but all three of our cars were pretty stellar pace-wise. Whether it was the 3, the 12 or me, I think we all had similar pace,” he said.

Newgarden talked a bit about the overcut that cost him the lead, when Power’s crew jumped him on the final stop.

“The warm-up was really tough on the tires. It was literally nearly three seconds of an advantage on an overcut. Two-and-a-half, three-second advantage,” he explained.

“You can’t get overcut on a day like today. You got to work that problem out. We pretty much had it worked out. We got to sort of a confusing place at the very end with the 78 (Nolan Siegel). Was it the 78?

“It’s all part of INDYCAR racing. You got to sort of manage the situation. I felt like I didn’t make the right call there. We could have kept going, and we should have. So when you go for the undercut, that’s what happens. You just get burned. We got burned at the end.”

Newgarden also said he hadn’t seen the incident at the start of the race when he nudged Colton Herta into a spin. Herta was surprised, to say the least, that Newgarden did not receive a penalty while Marcus Armstrong and Luca Ghiotto received avoidable contact penalties for similar dustups in the first lap, first-turn skirmish.

On the bright side, Newgarden hailed his team for their rapid preparation of a backup car following his accident in the Kink on Saturday, and how they rallied after a nightmarish Detroit weekend for most of the team.

“I think you get a great reset in this group. There’s nothing that ever really lingers. Personally there’s nothing that lingers. From a team side, you don’t see anything linger,” he said.

“We rocked up here to normal business. Even after yesterday with my mis-step, it’s like, Okay, we’re going to build a new car.”

McLaughlin interjected, “Almost get excited for it. They’re like, Let’s do it.”

Back to Newgarden: “That’s so true. We don’t get a chance to do what they did last night. They hammered out a new car in, like, two hours. It’s crazy. I could have wrote that thing off in warm-up and I would have made the race. It would have made the race with time to spare. It’s so cool to see them work at a high level.

“But, yeah, there’s nothing that lingers with this group. They were ready to rock. 1-2-3, like Scott said, that’s the story.”

A Very Thirsty Scott McLaughlin

Scott McLaughlin led 18 laps today, so he led the most laps for the second time in three races (he led 68 at the Indianapolis 500) and also came up short of a win today just as he did then. He was on the wrong side of strategy on the last pit sequence.

“Ultimately when the cycle finished, last stop, it was all sort of bringing it home for the team in some ways, yeah, as Josef said. I thought we were really quick in parts. Had a great start, led a lot of laps. I think the strategy didn’t fall our way in terms of the overcut was strong. We knew it was going to be strong, but it was really strong today.

“I kind of wish we ran reds in the second stint just to get that over and done with earlier, then I could have attacked a bit more on the black tire.

“Ultimately, yeah, it’s a huge day. Really proud. It’s been tough, man. Tough from May to here. The boys have been on the road for a long, long time. Huge props to them and the hard work that’s gone on behind the scenes. It’s not stopping now. They have to work till midnight tonight getting ready for the hybrid test we have got on Tuesday.

“A good reward for the team, but ultimately still work to do. We’ll keep pushing on. Just proud to get a podium at the XPEL Grand Prix in the XPEL car.”

McLaughlin said the Firestone red alternate tires hung on for his third stint of the race, prior to his third pit stop, better than expected.

“I was pretty careful with them. That’s half the reason why I didn’t fight Josef. Ultimately they held on pretty good. Not bad. I definitely probably would have not been able to hold Josef off, regardless. Then a couple P-to-P dramas. I was saving my push to pass for the end of the race or the last exchange.

“Yeah, chose to sort of just bring them up and look after them. Obviously thought from a points perspective, after Detroit, just nice to bring home a pretty strong result. I just had to bring that home.”

Ultimately, the “Thirsty 3’s” moniker that McLaughlin and his No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet team have embodied was sort of accurate.

The No. 3 car finished third, and McLaughlin was thirsty after the race.

When asked whether they needed to rest up prior to Tuesday’s open test at the Milwaukee Mile, McLaughlin responded simply, “See you at Siebkens.”