SONOMA, Calif. — It was the year of Roger Penske in IndyCar. No team came close to stopping Team Penske’s march to the top of the standings.
When the checkered flag fell Sunday on the 2016 season, Penske drivers celebrated with their 10th victory of the year and a 1-2-3 finish in the final IndyCar standings. The last time a team swept the season standings was in 1994 by another Penske group: Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy.
This trio of Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves couldn’t be touched this season as the entire organization was determined to forget its failure a year ago while giving the boss the gift of an IndyCar championship in the 50th anniversary season of Team Penske.
“The numbers look great, for sure. It’s very satisfying,” said Pagenaud, who won his first championship in his sophomore season driving for Penske. “It’s certainly a big year for us. Fifty-year anniversary, win for the team, winning myself, my name is always going to be there. It’s great to be the little thing I am in such a big team with such history.”
The dominance shown by the organization this year comes amid signs of promise for IndyCar’s future.
Although the series continues to be dwarfed by NASCAR in television ratings, its viewership increased this season on NBC Sports Network. The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was sold out, and the series celebrated a new American winner that day in rookie Alexander Rossi.
Rossi didn’t put together a magical season after his surprising 15 minutes of fame, and right up until he ran out of gas in the last corner of Sunday’s season finale, he’s been a mixed bag.
“It’s weird how this sport works — we won the biggest race of the year the same way (on fuel),” Rossi said. “It’s just the way it goes sometime. It’s easier to look back at things that could have been different, but that’s racing and I hope to show what I’m capable of in the future.”
What his future holds, nobody knows.
Rossi could try to return to Formula One, where he’s still seeking a role beyond reserve driver, or return to IndyCar. He entered the series in a partnership between Bryan Herta and Andretti Autosport, but was suddenly mentioned at Sonoma Raceway as a potential candidate to drive for Penske.
Penske has yet to commit to four cars next season, which puts Juan Pablo Montoya in a state of limbo. While last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner doesn’t expect Penske to bring him back in 2017, Penske himself said planning is still ongoing and he’d like to have his lineup set in the next 60 days.
Many believe Josef Newgarden, another budding American star, will be Montoya’s replacement. The only thing that is certain, though, is that Newgarden will likely be the first domino to fall in what could be a frenzied offseason free agency that leads to new jobs for Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Newgarden and others.
Meanwhile, Chip Ganassi has yet to announce a replacement sponsor for Target, which is leaving IndyCar after 27 seasons with the team owner. Target’s departure leaves four-time series champion Scott Dixon without a sponsor, but Ganassi has shown no signs of worry.
While the loss of Target could be seen as a blow to IndyCar’s place in the sports marketing world, the series was bolstered this weekend by DHL Express renewing its sponsorship of Ryan Hunter-Reay through 2020 and Menards returning to the series in a significant sponsorship role with Pagenaud next season.
“Ryan is a tremendous brand ambassador for us,” said DHL CEO Mike Parra. “Then the association with … having the Andretti name associated with DHL — we say we’re the world’s most international company. Who better than to be associated with what I believe is the best owner and the best name in this business?”
For John Menard, who spent years as both a team owner and sponsor in IndyCar before moving his focus to NASCAR and the career of his son, Paul, the return has been based on a sense of excitement around the series. He first inched back to IndyCar with a three-race sponsorship agreement with Penske that included the Indianapolis 500. The deal grew to five races this season, and will be 10 as Pagenaud’s primary sponsor next year.
“I think IndyCar is on an upward trend now,” Menard said. “I think that they are to be commended, the people that are running it right now, because I think they’re doing a great job. It’s not easy right now competing for attention in the sports world with all the things that are going on. To see IndyCar having some growth, having really successful races … we’re really excited to be back as part of it.”
The series will receive some much-needed offseason attention through James Hinchcliffe’s participation in “Dancing With The Stars.” The Canadian has become a brand ambassador for IndyCar, and got the “DWTS” opportunity through appearances on “Family Feud” and “The Steve Harvey Show.”
Now IndyCar has gone all-in on marketing for Hinchcliffe’s dancing bit, and he’s doing the same for the series.
“Doing ‘Dancing With The Stars’ was to help spread the IndyCar message. That was honestly one of my reasons, bigger reasons, for doing it,” he said. “I’m such a fan of this sport. I have been since I was a kid. I’m now in a super fortunate position to be involved in it and essentially in a sense be a spokesperson for it. I want to tell the story. I want to show people how cool this sport really is.”