Indianapolis 500 Shapes Up As A Penske Vs. Ganassi Affair

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 24 2009
Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske sit next to Dario Franchitti of the arch-rival Target Chip Ganassi Racing team during Saturday's drivers meeting at Indy. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo by Jim Haines)

Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske sit next to Dario Franchitti of the arch-rival Target Chip Ganassi Racing team during Saturday's drivers meeting at Indy. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo by Jim Haines)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Indianapolis – From team owners to team gophers, the employees of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing wake up every morning intent on beating the corporate snot out of their IndyCar Series rivals.

Race day takes it to another level.  Penske mainstays Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe know at some point during Sunday’s 93rd Indianapolis 500 they will have to contend with Ganassi counterparts Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. But first, each set of superstar teammates acknowledged that their fiercest rivals at Indianapolis Motor Speedway figure to be the driver they know best and trust most.

“I would say Ryan Briscoe,” said Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 champion who qualified on-pole and will start alongside Briscoe. “You know, I feel we are very strong, both cars. And he’s certainly the guy that will be very competitive. Scott is also a very tough guy, along with other teams and drivers. But I feel what I have my teammate has and you feel when you’re strong. So that makes him strong as well.”

That line of reasoning makes perfect sense to Dixon, the reigning Indy 500 and series champion.

“Yeah, it does almost because you know what equipment your teammate has,” said Dixon, who will start in the middle of the three cars in Row 2. “I think you always got to have a team competition, and that’s always the first guy you look to beat is your teammate because you know they have the same equipment. So I know what Helio’s saying by that. But if he’s just worrying about Ryan, I’d be a little worried because there’s a lot of people out there that are going to be extremely tough…Andretti Green Racing and a good six, seven, eight guys.”

Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 and series champion while driving for AGR, certainly is a bona fide contender from his starting spot at the outside of Row 1. The fact that the Penske and Ganassi drivers hold four of the first six starting positions in the 33-car field is only the most recent proof that – given your preference – these are the undisputed super teams of open-wheel racing.

Roger S. Penske’s organization was dominating the Indy 500 long before it joined the Indy Racing League fulltime in 2002. Castroneves scored Team Penske’s record-setting 15th Indy 500 pole position on May 9. Penske drivers have notched a record 14 Indy 500 victories, the most recent by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. Briscoe’s victory in the 2009 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., was the 30th IndyCar  win for “The Captain.”

Chip Ganassi, himself a five-time starter in the Indy 500, received an immediate return on his pairing of Franchitti with Dixon when they won Rounds 2 and 3 at Long Beach, Calif., and Kansas Speedway, respectively. Ganassi drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Dixon have won the Indy 500, the most prominent of the 26 IndyCar victories for the organization fronted by “The Chipster.”

“For as long as I’ve known Chip, with one exception he’s pretty much gone out and hired what he felt was the best guys he could put in his seat,” said Franchitti, who posted his first IndyCar Series road-course victory on the famed streets of Long Beach last month. “He did it all through the late 1990s with (Alex) Zanardi and (Jimmy) Vasser, and then he hired Dixie and he hired Dan (Wheldon). He said, ‘OK, I’ll give you the best equipment to do the job. We know how good the Target Team is and now go do your job.’ Both Scott and I want to win as badly as anybody, so we don’t need any additional pressure. And Chip knows that, otherwise he wouldn’t have hired us.”

Briscoe, who made his first Indy 500 start in 2005 while driving for Team Target, is well-aware of Ganassi’s modus operandi and track record. “Look at the numbers,” Briscoe said. “Last time Scott was here, last time Franchitti was here they both won the race. They are a great team, as well. I think Scott and Dario are a perfect pairing for teammates. From what I’ve seen from the outside and what I’ve heard, they do work very well together and like similar setups, and that always helps within a team. Yeah, there’s no doubt they’re going to be a threat.”

However, both Franchitti and Dixon balked at the idea that they are somehow individually or collectively “super,” much less superior.

“I think Scott and I are pretty low-key guys,” said Franchitti, the 36-year-old Scotsman who has returned to open-wheel after an aborted attempt at NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series with Ganassi’s program. “Scott and I had a good laugh in 2007, because we came here both him and I – nobody talked about us. Whether it was on TV or the buildup, nobody really paid any attention to Scott or I and we finished 1-2. And the same in the championship. So we’re a pretty low-key organization. We like to let our driving do the talking ,and all that sort of stuff.”

Dixon, who has finished first and second in his last two starts at IMS, said he doesn’t pay attention to labels tossed out by well-meaning media.

“ I just look at racing,” said Dixon, a 28-year-old native of New Zealand. “I’m no different than what I was last year or the year before. I think the combination of the two is great. You can’t beat intra-team competition. And to have a guy (like Dario) that’s really achieved all that, a fantastic driver, he’s extremely motivated at the moment especially after last year. So you know that guy is going to lift my game and that’s what I need to do to try to win another championship and another race.”

Recalling that 2007 Indy 500 and season-long battle with Franchitti, Dixon said the circumstances now are entirely different. “At that point you were definitely a lot more gung-ho in some ways,” Dixon said. “We’ve been friends since I started Champ Car in 2001, so we hung out a lot before that. We’re definitely a lot closer now. Dario and I are similar in a lot of ways and both respect each other and that’s key to trying to do what we want to do.

“It’s probably harder to beat the guy, but that’s what I’m trying to do. You know what the guy’s got, that’s the only advantage you’ve got over when he was with another team.  I know, unfortunately, where I’m strong he’s probably going to be strong, too, with this team. Every time I’m in the car with a new teammate you’re learning something new.”

Castroneves  and Briscoe are in the second year of their pairing, in what has been a convoluted 2009. Castroneves sat out the season-opener at St.Pete as he, his sister and business manager dealt with charges of federal income tax evasion. Penske hired Australian Will Power during the offseason to drive Castroneves’ No. 3 Dallara/Honda in case the verdict went against Helio. The three defendants were cleared of all but one conspiracy charge on April 17, and that final point was dismissed Friday.

His legal problems over, Castroneves returned to the cockpit and finished seventh at Long Beach and and second to Dixon at Kansas Speedway in the season’s first oval-race. On cue, Castroneves put together a four-lap/10-mile qualifying run here at 224.864 mph that secured his third Indy 500 pole.

“That was just an incredible feeling,” said Castroneves, a 34-year-old native of Brazil and Indy 500 champion in 2001-02. “I have to give credit to Ryan, to Will Power – they did the preseason test. It’s not just pole position, you know? It was the entire time I was off those guys were right there working.”

Briscoe termed Castroneves’ pole-winning performance “amazing” considering the distractions in his teammate’s life. “He’s come back, I think, more alive and more motivated than ever,” Briscoe said. “He’s just a newborn kid starting a new career. And he’s as strong as he’s ever been.”

That said, Briscoe added he fully understands why Castroneves considers him a bigger threat to his chances of winning a third Indy 500 than arch-rival Dixon. Basically, the Penske drivers have been lapping in lockstep for the Month of May.

“I don’t think we’ve (he and Helio) hit the track once since after qualifying without being together on the racetrack,” said Briscoe, a 27-year-old native of Australia. “We have been waiting for each other, and we leave the pits together and do our long runs together and it’s been perfect. We’ve been working together, making each of our cars faster and faster from his input and from my input and using Will’s input as well.

“We know what we have, and it’s about exactly the same. Our setups are like…right there. And it’s going to come down to, hopefully it’s between us. But this is the 500 and anything can happen and we do have some (competition)…Franchitti, last time he was here won it. And Dixon is the reigning 500 champion and you can bet that TK (Tony Kanaan) wants to win it as much as anyone here. So it’s going to be tough. But it’s pretty nice knowing that Helio feels I’m a threat to win.”

Of course, the storybook script here would see Castroneves rolling into Victory Circle after his hellish six months capped by a six-week trial to swig the traditional milk.

“That would be the perfect scenario!” Castroneves said.  “I love racing. I realize I love it even more after all my issues. But it’s over. You got to turn the page. You got to move on and you can’t be thinking about it. Again, I’m a driver. And I think when I’m in the race car _ no, I know when I’m in the race car _ that’s the only place I’m in control, you know? I can do whatever I want.  I close my visor, I guess maybe it’s a way of, you know, to separate from outside the world. It’s my world, and when you control you can do whatever you want. It makes me feel very confident, and maybe helps me a lot to continue to move on.” 

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 24 2009
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