It’s not uncommon for Team Penske drivers to be their own toughest competitors. As the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season reaches its conclusion this week, that phenomenon returns as profound as ever.
The guy who has extended experience with the unusual “Us vs. Us” drama finds it entertaining. Helio Castroneves, who is in third place in the standings heading into the Sept. 17 finale at Sonoma Raceway, will be trying to catch Penske teammate Josef Newgarden while holding off another teammate, Simon Pagenaud, for the championship.
“It's so funny,” said Castroneves, wrapping up his 20th season in Indy cars and 18th with Team Penske. “This relationship obviously happens with a lot of my teammates before, and I remember very definitively with Gil (de Ferran), with Sam Hornish, also with (Ryan) Briscoe. It's kind of like really funny.”
Funny in part because it extends throughout the leaders and workers in all four Team Penske groups, including team owner Roger Penske, who serves as Castroneves’ strategist. Team president Tim Cindric is the strategist for Newgarden, while Kyle Moyer calls the shots for Pagenaud.
“Let me tell you, RP is more competitive than anybody in this team,” Castroneves said. “Cindric obviously wants to beat him, and he wants to beat him and Kyle, and I want to beat all of them as well, too.”
Newgarden leads Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon by just three points as preparation mounts for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Castroneves is 22 points behind Newgarden; Pagenaud is 34 points off the lead. The fourth Team Penske driver, Will Power, is 68 points back with an outside chance.
The competition among Penske teammates has been fierce lately. Newgarden joined the team this season and immediately became a force with which his teammates had to reckon. The team also has returned to championship form in recent years, with Pagenaud winning the title in 2016 and Power in 2014.
But Newgarden’s effect on the team this season was quick and powerful. He won the third race of the season – at Barber Motorsports Park – and has won three of the last five races – Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Gateway Motorsports Park.
“He's here because of his talent,” Castroneves said. “He's been able to show that the entire season, and then we can see as a teammate what he has brought to the team. He definitely brought a very competitive edge, which is great. At least for me, it keeps pushing me as always. As I always say, I hope my teammates keep me light on my feet.”
This year, they’ve definitely done that, but Castroneves has held his ground with remarkable consistency. In 16 races this season, he has only one finish outside the top 10 – a crash at Texas Motor Speedway in June – and has eight top-five finishes, including a victory in July at Iowa Speedway.
This is Castroneves’ best chance to win his first championship. The 42-year-old Brazilian’s last best shot was in 2014, when he finished second in the final standings for the fourth time in his career. Castroneves also has a solid record at Sonoma, having won in 2008 and finished second in 2001 and 2007, but he’s worried about the things he can’t control.
“That's something that concerns me sometimes,” Castroneves said. “Some (other drivers) might not be aware of what's going on and have an opportunity to show something, and those are the things that sometimes you don't have much control.”
For now, he’s only focused on his own effort. The group surrounding the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet – including Penske and lead engineer Jonathan Diuguid – is intent on continuing its run of consistency. If that happens, Castroneves will be in the middle of the championship drama.
“We've just got to keep bringing what we've been doing the whole season,” Castroneves said. “We're not here at this position by luck. We're here because we perform as a team, as a group. Everybody in a consistent way, in a competitive way most of the time, and that's what we're going to have to continue doing.”
The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the race to decide the 2017 champion, airs live at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.