IndyCar 2023 mid-season reflections: Meyer Shank Racing – Team Penske

BARBER MOTORSPORTS PARK, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - APRIL 30: #2: Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, start, #45: Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, #6: Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, #21: Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday April 30, 2023 in Birmingham, United States of America. (Photo by Gavin Baker / LAT Images)
BARBER MOTORSPORTS PARK, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - APRIL 30: #2: Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, start, #45: Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, #6: Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, #21: Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday April 30, 2023 in Birmingham, United States of America. (Photo by Gavin Baker / LAT Images)

RACER’s three-part analysis at the halfway point of the IndyCar season concludes with three teams who are facing big and very different tasks to close the season.

IndyCar 2023 mid-season reflections: Chip Ganassi Racing – Juncos Hollinger Racing

IndyCar 2023 mid-season reflections: A.J Foyt Racing – Arrow McLaren

MEYER SHANK RACING

Helio Castroneves, No. 06 Honda, 20th in drivers’ standings (-273 points to Palou)

Simon Pagenaud, No. 60 Honda, 25th in drivers’ standings (-289 points)

Lots of questions, not many answers thus far for Pagenaud (left) and Castroneves at Meyer Shank Racing. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

Just when it looked like its season couldn’t get any worse, Simon Pagenaud suffered a brake failure and barrel-rolled his Meyer Shank Racing car at Mid-Ohio. Amid his worst IndyCar season to date, the Frenchman experienced the harshest crash of his career. The Jim Meyer- and Mike Shank-owned team continues to soldier through a season that cannot end soon enough.

Add in the ever-present spins and incidents with Helio Castroneves in the sister car, and more than any other IndyCar team, MSR is in dire need of a fresh start.

As a single-car team with Jack Harvey at the controls in 2021, MSR performed like a true extension of Andretti Autosport as the No. 60 Honda paid six visits to the Firestone Fast 12. Two years later, the biggest mystery in the series is how MSR, with Andretti Technologies providing dampers, chassis setups, and race engineers, is on an entirely different island than its partners.

With 18 combined opportunities for its cars to start inside the top 12, it’s happened just once, with Pagenaud (Detroit). Andretti sophomore Devlin DeFrancesco’s done it twice, for the sake of comparison. For Castroneves, his best in qualifying performance has been a 15th (St. Pete), and seven of his nine starts have been 19th or worse.

And before we target MSR’s drivers as the place where the qualifying problem starts and ends, consider how the two veterans have taken a nearly identical downward plunge in 2022-to-2023 average starting positions. For Pagenaud, he owns the greatest retreat in the series (+6.03 positions, from 12.22 to 18.25), and it isn’t much prettier for Castroneves (+5.89, from 14.89 to 20.78). The year-to-year separation from Andretti is particularly alarming.

Consider how Andretti’s best average qualifier of 2022 was Colton Herta (9.22) and how Pagenaud wasn’t too far behind last year (12.22, +3.0 positions). In 2023, Kyle Kirkwood is Andretti’s best average starter (8.89) and MSR’s best is still Pagenaud (18.25, +9.36), but he’s well back on average from where he was a year ago (+6.36). Together, MSR’s drivers are suddenly six spots down on the grid from last year, and when you’re rolling off in 20th or so in most events, you’re in trouble.

Through Mid-Ohio last year, Pagenaud’s average finish was strong (10.44), but as expected, he’s had the biggest negative change among all drivers this season through Mid-Ohio (+8.69, down to 19.13, and only counting the eight races he’s contested). In 2022’s first nine races, he started 12th or so and improved to 10th or so by the checkered flag. In 2023, Pagenaud’s started around 18th and finished around 19th, which is sobering.

The slide for Castroneves hasn’t been as bad across the same metric (+2.67, from 15.89 in 2022 to 18.56), but the net result has been where both drivers are frequently crossing the finish line out of sight of the TV cameras and buried among rookies and smaller teams who should be behind MSR.

Short-term fixes are squarely placed on Saturdays where the eternity between MSR and the Andretti mothership — which has taken five poles — demands everyone’s full attention. Pull the Nos. 06 and 60 up a few spots in qualifying, and the corresponding finishes should mirror that progress.

It’s also worth noting that with such a large year-to-year discrepancy to resolve, the problem MSR is experiencing is significant, and if the fixes were readily apparent, they would have been applied.

Unlike a Scott Dixon who needs to find two or three grid positions to improve his chances of winning, MSR is trying to recover the four or five rows it’s lost, and just as Ed Carpenter Racing is busy hunting for the ground it’s given up in 2023, MSR is mired in the same frustrating and humbling quest. The two organizations share the same reality in both are loaded with really good people.

Qualifying shortcomings have made for a steep uphill climb for Pagenaud (pictured) and Castroneves. Motorsport Images

But something’s broken in a methodology or something’s getting lost in translation that wasn’t before, and with no immediate answers on how to fix things, MSR’s riding the struggle bus and doesn’t know how to get off the thing. Nonetheless, changes and additions are a must if they are going to break free from the bottom half of the field.

In that regard, Pagenaud was 15th and Castroneves was 18th in last year’s championship, which left everyone — drivers included — feeling dissatisfied. The feeling has only intensified. Castroneves is currently 20th and has hovered there or as low as 23rd for all but one race to date. Prior to missing Mid-Ohio, Pagenaud was 24th, has been as high as 21st, and as low as 26th. He’s 25th and could lose at least one more position after being ruled out of racing at Toronto.

The other unfortunate part for Pagenaud is how the race prior to Mid-Ohio at Road America presented him with a ton of encouragement for where the No. 60 car was headed. It was the first race of the year where things felt great and the team was expecting it to continue at Mid-Ohio. The brake failure and crash during the opening practice session ruined that trajectory.

After two consecutive seasons of underwhelming results, the winds of change will be present when we reconvene in 2024. Pagenaud’s Toronto sub, MSR IMSA star Tom Blomqvist, is tipped to take over the No. 06, and if Pagenaud can return soon and put up some strong finishes, he’ll be in a better position to get a new contract to stay in the No. 60.

With Andretti as its bar of reference, the rest of the season will be little more than a race-by-race measurement of whether MSR is inching forward, holding station, or falling farther behind.

RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Honda, 14th in drivers’ standings (-232 points to Palou)

Jack Harvey, No. 30 Honda, 23rd in drivers’ standings (-282 points)

Christian Lundgaard, No. 45, 10th in drivers’ standings (-183 points)

Lundgaard (right) has been Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s most consistent performer but Graham Rahal is starting to share in the rising form. Phil Abbott/Motorsport Images

The saga of RLL’s year is well known. Huge efforts were made during the offseason to ensure an unrewarding 2022 wasn’t repeated, and yet, the team went backwards in almost every way. Only Christian Lundgaard, an encouraging 10th in the standings, has been largely bulletproof in that capacity as he’s earned RLL’s only pole and only visits to the top five in 2023. If an RLL driver is having a decent weekend, it’s usually the 21-year-old Dane.

Lundgaard also ranks as the biggest mover in year-to-year average qualifying improvements, motoring forward on the starting grid more than any other driver who stayed with their team (+4.00 positions, from 17.67 to 13.67). In road course qualifying, he’s been a monster (+8.00, with an average starting spot of 4.75), and he also leads the team in street course qualifying (+2.34).

Lundgaard showed his overall prowess as a rookie, and of the tasks to complete as a sophomore, improving on ovals was his main job. Ovals are also the tracks where RLL has struggled the most, and as expected, Lundgaard was unable to make meaningful progress at Texas or Indy. If the team has something to offer at Iowa and WWTR, it would do wonders and help him develop the finer oval racecraft he’ll need to make another leap in the standings.

Mid-Ohio offered a rare glimpse of Graham Rahal outperforming Lundgaard on a road course in qualifying and the race, but an issue in the pits ended that rosy run. In what surely feels like a year from hell, it’s interesting to note that Rahal exited Mid-Ohio last year 15th in the championship and he’s P14 at the moment.

If the very recent rays of competitive sunshine continue to break through, Rahal is capable of mounting another second-half charge. In 2022, he went from 15th at Mid-Ohio and turned that into 12th to close the year, so it wouldn’t take much for him to join Lundgaard in the top 10 if the mid-season turnaround stays on track.

Although street courses remain a concern for RLL, Rahal’s road course qualifying has been strong (+4.50 positions on average), which bodes well for the second Indy GP, Portland, and Monterey.

Jack Harvey needed to open his second season with RLL by making everyone forget his dismal debut in 2022, and sadly, the situation has worsened. He showed plenty of grit during RLL’s depressing month of May, leading the team home in 18th, but he’s tied with IndyCar rookie Agustin Canapino for 23rd in the championship, three spots behind where he was at the same point last year where he missed scoring points at Texas.

A change of race engineer and strategist at Road America was made in the hope of moving the No. 30 car forward, and while the entry itself is getting stronger, the team is unlikely to be continuing with Harvey in 2024.

A few teams have expressed some interest in the talented Briton, and from Toronto onwards, the final eight races for Harvey are all about creating new opportunities elsewhere in the series.

Independent of its three drivers, RLL’s clear priority for the remainder of the season is to produce the kind of results that will attract high-profile drivers and more high-caliber engineers to help achieve its goals in 2024.

Anxious times await, as five of the eight races left are on RLL’s weakest tracks. Toronto, the Iowa doubleheader, Nashville, and WWTR are the real turnaround tests that will reveal how far the team has or hasn’t come since it recently hit the reset button.

TEAM PENSKE

Josef Newgarden, No. 2 Chevy, third in drivers’ standings (-116 points to Palou)

Scott McLaughlin, No. 3 Chevy, sixth in drivers’ standings (-148 points)

Will Power, No. 12 Chevy, seventh in drivers’ standings (-151 points)

It hasn’t been the party mode of 2022, but Team Penske’s Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power have all had a share of the spotlight. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

The biggest pre-season objective for Team Penske was to successfully address its performance issues at the Indy 500. Josef Newgarden’s big win in May spoke volumes about how far the team has come at the Speedway, but did the grand engineering effort to win at Indy tip its competitive balance too far in the 500’s direction?

Following its year-long dominance where its drivers finished first, second and fourth in the championship and amassed nine wins and 21 podiums, Penske’s title defense has been somewhat disappointing when measured against 2022 where it had won six of the nine races and claimed 10 podiums through Mid-Ohio.

Using that benchmark of six and 10, Penske has three wins and seven podiums this year, which would be remarkable for most teams, but on the heels of its championship ownership last season, its glaring year-to-year gap to Chip Ganassi Racing can’t be ignored. Newgarden has been the perfect example of the situation where he’s either spraying champagne or in need of commiseration.

Two wins and a second at Road America are the highs, but it’s the five races with unrewarding runs between ninth and 17th have him 116 points out of the lead. Last year, Newgarden was 34 behind the championship leader entering Toronto.

The same is true of Scott McLaughlin, the breakout star of 2022, who departed Mid-Ohio with a deficit of 69 points to the championship leader. He’s seen the margin more than double to 148 in 2023. The Kiwi has one win so far, and like Newgarden, that tally could be higher, but the year just hasn’t been as kind as the last. The consistency that propelled the team to great heights last year has, through Mid-Ohio, been a challenge to find and maintain.

With that being said, the team can capture a few more wins and go on a streak to close the season, but it will require a complementary collapse from Chip Ganassi Racing for Newgarden or McLaughlin to have a shot at the title. Just as MSR is trying to figure out how it’s lost touch with Andretti, Penske’s asking itself how it fell so far behind Ganassi in just nine races.

Without his customary qualifying flair, Power has been looking up the grid to his Chip Ganassi Racing rivals more often than not this season. Motorsport Images

Qualifying has been the root cause for most of Penske’s newfound difficulties on race day. It took nine poles last year, with each driver having at least one through Mid-Ohio, but now, it’s zero across the board for Penske in this category after nine races. And it’s not the lack of poles that’s problematic.

It’s the step back in starting positions for Newgarden (-3.11 positions, from a 2022 average of 6.56 down to 9.67) and McLaughlin (-2.11 to 10.22). The longer average distance to get to the front has made for tougher days for Penske’s two leading contenders, and yet, Newgarden has charged forward undaunted and improved his average finishing position (by 0.89) over this point in 2022 and so has McLaughlin (by 2.22), which shows the progress they’re capable of making.

After capturing the second IndyCar title of his storied career, reigning series champion Will Power is having a comparatively anonymous season. He was second in points leaving Mid-Ohio in 2022, just 20 back from Marcus Ericsson, with a pole, a win, four podiums, and seven out of nine finishes inside the top four. Leaving Mid-Ohio in 2023, he has three podiums, and no wins or poles.

Power kept the bad results to a minimum last year and had just four finishes outside the top 10 in 17 races. He’s already had four outside the top 10 this season.

Unlike last year where Power’s front-running consistency was impossible to deal with, his title defense has been more like 2021 where he ended up P9 in the championship. In qualifying, his average starting spot is only down slightly (+0.66), making the fall in average finishing position (+3.22) the one that stands out and fits what we’ve witnessed to date. Barring a miracle, Power’s hopes of earning back-to-back titles will go unrealized.

If it weren’t for Ganassi, Team Penske would be having another standout season, but if it ends the season as the Indy 500 winners and nothing more, it’s not the worst thing in the world…

And while there’s no way Alex Palou will have a misfortune-free run through Monterey, would a few bad races for the Spaniard be enough to bring Newgarden and McLaughlin back into the title frame? Place your bets now, because change is the only constant in IndyCar.


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