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INDIANAPOLIS -- Five years between Indianapolis 500 victories is an eternity for Roger Penske.
It's a drought the legendary businessman/racing team owner has had to endure only once since 1979, when Rick Mears claimed the first of his four Indy wins, the second of Penske's record 15 triumphs in the famous Memorial Day race.
The seven-year gap between 1994 and 2001 in Penske's Indy win resume comes with an asterisk. In 1995, his cars failed to make the race, unable to muster the speed to make Indy's field of 33 in an era when there were far more entries than starting berths.
From 1996 to 2000, embroiled in the politics of the era, Penske chose not to participate at Indianapolis. But he simply couldn't stay away from a race he first attended in 1951, and since his return to Indy in 2001, Penske has won five times.
|Helio Castroneves is hoping to win his fourth Indy 500 and break Team Penske's Indy drought in one fell swoop.|
Still, the last win came courtesy of Helio Castroneves in 2009, and there have been only two Indy victory lane celebrations since Gil de Ferran capped a run of three straight for Team Penske all the way back in 2003.
Taking that absence from the late '90s away, the current five-year winless skein is Penske's longest in 35 years. Three years without a Penske win at Indy is a rarity, and that fact doesn't slip past him.
"I've seen a lot go on here at Indianapolis, and obviously we've had the success to have cars in the winner's circle 15 times," Penske said. "But that doesn't really mean anything. It's, 'What are you going to do this year?'
"For me it's another journey, this year with three great drivers," Penske added. "Helio [Castroneves], looking for his fourth win; Will [Power], leading the championship; and Juan Pablo Montoya, coming back from NASCAR after having the opportunity to drink the milk the last time he was here.
"I think with these three drivers we have the right combination, no question. And potentially we've got the winner."
There's no doubt that the re-expansion of Team Penske's effort in the Verizon IndyCar Series to three full-time cars this year was based on the desire for a stronger showing at Indianapolis. After all, Montoya led 167 of 200 laps to dominate the Indianapolis 500 in his only attempt (in 2000, while driving for Chip Ganassi), and he also boasts a strong record in the NASCAR Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was recently announced that Montoya will drive a Team Penske Ford at the Brickyard in late July.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric has been saying all season long that Indianapolis was where Montoya would start to show the form that won 12 Indy car races and a CART-sanctioned championship in 1999-2000. Montoya admitted Thursday at Indianapolis 500 Media Day that the recent Grand Prix of Indianapolis was the first time in four races this year that he had his Dallara-Chevrolet tuned to his liking.
"It's a shame we got behind at the start, because I could really push the car and I thought we were one of the fastest cars out there," Montoya said.
"At St. Pete, the team said, 'Take it easy.' I was always a session behind those guys [Power and Castroneves]," he continued. "At Long Beach, I decided to just go for it, and it worked a lot better. I'm starting to understand what I want out of the car and how to get the most out of the red tires."
Just when Montoya was starting to get comfortable on road and street courses again after seven and a half years out of formula cars, he got pitched onto the famous Indianapolis oval. Like at St. Pete, he seemed to be one session behind his teammates; he was disappointed to miss out on the Fast Nine in Saturday qualifying, then came back to post the second fastest speed of the day Sunday (231.007 mph vs. pole winner Ed Carpenter's 231.067) to lead the drivers competing for 10th on the grid.
Power ran a slightly slower speed but landed on the outside of the front row.
"The biggest thing for me about being back here is the honor of being with Penske -- the tradition, the history," Montoya said.
"I came here once and I won it, so I have a little bit of pressure to make it 2-for-2," he added with a chuckle. "I know how important this race is for everybody, and this year it's so close that the smallest detail can make the difference between having the winning car and not."
Castroneves' bid to tie Penske icon Rick Mears' record of four Indianapolis wins will be easy to follow on the racetrack. His Dallara-Chevrolet is decked out in a vivid yellow retro look that mimics the Pennzoil-sponsored cars that Mears drove to Indy wins for Penske in 1984 and '88.
"The color yellow helped me before on 'Dancing With the Stars,' so I'm hoping for the same," joked Castroneves, who will start from the inside of Row 2 on Sunday.
Meanwhile, some observers believe Power is the Penske driver who will end "The Captain's" victory drought. Any questions about the Australian's oval speed or racecraft were put to rest when he conclusively won the 500-mile 2013 IndyCar Series season finale at Auto Club Speedway.
"The 500-mile race in California was a big breakthrough for me," said Power, who is acknowledged as the top road racer in the series. "I'd never been so excited at the end of a race.
"But this is a very different place and a very different style of racing," he went on. "I feel like this year we have a much better car. I feel much more comfortable in traffic and seem to be able to pass and run in traffic a lot better."