Mental warfare has begun in IndyCar's title fight

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

SALINAS, Calif. – If the "new Will Power" shines through Sunday and the demons of 2010-12 don’t creep in, all the talk of team orders, second-guessing and the idea of giving the Ice Man a better chance in a race with nothing to lose will become moot.

If Scott Dixon – or even Marcus Ericsson, currently 39 points adrift – deliver Chip Ganassi’s third consecutive title and his 10th over the last 15, the questions won’t stop coming until the green flag falls in St. Pete in 2023.

Though jokingly, Team Penske’s Tim Cindric admitted it himself Wednesday.

“If we don’t win on Sunday, I might call you for a job, Mike,” the Team Penske president said off-handedly to CGR team manager Mike Hull during a media conference this week.

The joking and the smiles and the staged photos in fire suits on the greens of Pebble Beach have, outwardly at least, kept things cordial leading into IndyCar’s season-finale and a historically-tight five-person fight separated by 41 points (including the top-3 gapped by just 20) entering Sunday at Laguna Seca.

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But inside their minds, the warfare has already begun.

If you ask Cindric, Dixon hopped out of the car last Sunday after a season-saving run from 16th to 3rd and began a streak of “mental games” with Power, the current points leader and runner-up in the penultimate race. In multiple interviews since Dixon’s fourth podium of the year, the six-time champion has said Team Penske officials – of which Cindric plays the largest day-to-day role – mishandled a late-race strategy call in Portland regarding the ultimate goal at hand.

"If you focus on last week, you're not focused on this week," Cindric said.

Had it been Dixon trailing a teammate all day – one who, with a win, could stay in the title race — the 42-year-old contends he, Hull and Ganassi would’ve called for a 1-2 swap that would have stolen Scott McLaughlin’s third win of his stellar sophomore season and given it to Power, who’s on the cusp of becoming the first champion in 25 years with a single victory.

Power can still do so Sunday by finishing 2nd or 3rd and clinch his first title in eight years, no matter what Dixon or Penske teammate Josef Newgarden do tied at 20 points back. For a driver who’s logged podiums in eight of his 16 starts this year, that seems reasonable enough. But had McLaughlin voluntarily slowed and moved over, or if calls had been on his radio to do so, Power’s edge would be 30 – and he could finish as low as 7th Sunday and guarantee a second Astor Cup.

Will Power at St. Louis, Aug. 2022

For what it’s worth, when he was asked Sunday whether he would’ve been willing to do so, McLaughlin acquiesced.

“Everyone wouldn’t know that I would have been the true winner, so…,” he said as he tailed off. Moments before, Power said he’d been asking for such team orders over the radio – a decision which never came. Power remembered a conversation with his pole-sitting teammate before the race where the New Zealander said, “I’m not going to block you if you get a run.”

But Power never got the momentum, nor the call he wanted. So rather than having a more resounding lead and putting more of Team Penske’s eggs in a single basket, the 18-time series champion program sets out with three hopes Sunday and the best driver of a generation square in the rearview mirror.

“That was never a consideration,” said Cindric of switching Power and McLaughlin’s positions. “I think when you have a driver out there winning the race, it’s a much more difficult situation. Had the driver thought that was the right thing to do, he would’ve probably figured out a way to do that himself. But it’s certainly different in terms of a win and having the ability to mathematically be part of that championship. I know that was important to (McLaughlin) as well.

“If we have another restart, and Dixon passes both of them, then how do you feel?”

Cindric went on to explain how, as much as Penske has achieved over the years across all his business platforms by promoting and thinking about the bigger picture, the larger company and the long game, incredibly fierce the competition is between his three IndyCar programs.

Outside of perhaps McLauglhin’s rookie campaign as the three-time Supercars champion adjusted to open-wheel racing, Team Penske has for two decades fielded nothing but cars and drivers with title potential. They hire the best, equip everyone with the tools to succeed and then let them run loose, battle it out and see who finishes on top in the end.

And through that, it’s produced some stellar inter-team fights at times: Newgarden vs. Simon Pagenaud, Power vs. Juan Pablo Montoya or Helio Castroneves or Ryan Briscoe. As the longtime president believes, that brings out everyone’s best.

“When it comes down to team orders, people forget that you have other obligations to other people aside from yourself. You have obligations to the driver, to your sponsors, to their families and all the rest on down the line,” Cindric said. “Those aren’t very obvious things, especially when you’re talking about whether someone wins a race or doesn’t win a race.”

After Power had a chance to reflect on his Hail Mary that wasn’t answered, he said he wasn’t sure he really expected it. Officially, at least, “They’ve never done that,” he said. And, as he noted, doing so would’ve put Newgarden in a 30-point hole instead of down 20. As frustrating as it was to have chosen not to bury Dixon more, Penske couldn’t do so without eliminating McLaughlin completely and seemingly playing favorites.

Josef Newgarden at St. Louis, Aug. 2022

“If I was in (Josef’s) position, I would not be happy to be put 30 points back when it was only going to be 20 because of the team,” Power continued. “Only in the last race would they make a driver not in it potentially give up a win if it’s for the championship.”

In his eight seasons since his lone championship, Power’s taken it upon himself to stay clear of the fray, at minimum, or prioritize his teammates over his own personal goals. As David Malsher-Lopez pointed to in a recent piece, Power had the car to win at Toronto in 2009 but let Briscoe battle eventual champ Dario Franchitti solo. In 2013, he volunteered to try and give Castroneves the help he’d need to defeat Dixon – ultimately unsuccessfully. In 2015, seething after Montoya dumped him at the finale in Sonoma, Power tailed his teammate to the finish instead of charging to positions he rightfully deserved. And recently, he’s stayed out of Newgarden and Pagenaud’s collective ways as the former eventually pulled off his pair of championships.

Even with that, though, “Certainly, looking back on a couple of those, we could’ve helped ourselves as a team,” Power said, referring to some of his early-career fights with teammates that ultimately left him just short of Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay in successive years as the runner-up from 2010-12. “But that’s how (Penske) does it. They don’t have the team orders, but at least you know the game is what it is.”

It’s not as if Team Penske’s never prioritized team goals before. Less than two years ago, then-Acura Team Penske DPi driver Dane Cameron slid over on the last lap at Laguna Seca in the 2020 season’s penultimate race so that Castroneves could cross the finish line first and earn valuable title-winning points.

And Ganassi, too, let Franchitti and Dixon duke it out into the final laps of the 2009 championship. Dixon eventually lost due to a late-race strategy call that didn't pan out. In the two years that followed, Franchitti’s central foe was Power, and since then, outside Alex Palou’s resounding championship run where Dixon wasn’t much in the picture coming to the finish, Dixon’s never had to contend with a strong enough No. 2 to worry about anything other than his wishes and performance being catered to when in an Astor Cup fight.

Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, waves to the crowd after winning an IndyCar auto race in Toronto, Sunday, July 17, 2022.

Ericsson, who has faded from a strong championship lead with just one top-5 over the last eight races, wouldn’t deny the team-centric nature Ganassi professes – albeit one that’s far less pronounced than the atmosphere he lived in during his F1 days.

“Always from the first day you enter Ganassi, it’s always about the team,” he said. “You work with your teammates, you win with your teammates, and you lose with your teammates. I think that’s something Chip and Mike always push before races: it’s about the team, and I think that creates a certain atmosphere.”

And yet, Ericsson admits he believes Penske “did the right thing” Sunday letting the race’s most dominant driver tally the victory. Still, Ericsson, admits that should Power have survived and erased the Swede’s title hopes, he’d slide over and let Dixon win if it meant securing another championship for Ganassi.

“It’s pretty clear for Chip that we want to win a championship. For me, I want it to be me, but if I can’t, I want (Dixon) to do it. I would do that for sure,” Ericsson said. “But I haven’t given up on a championship. We’re still in it, and I’m not going to give up till its over. There’s still a chance, and if we win the race Sunday, there’s definitely a chance. Yes, there has to be a bad day for Will, but this is IndyCar. There’s loads of things happening.

“I feel less pressure. I don’t really feel like I have anything to lose here.”

There’s a sign of those mental games – which Newgarden and Dixon – freely joined in on Thursday.

“The points are all close enough, Will has to construct a careful weekend. He’s in a position where he has a lot of the risk on his shoulders,” Power’s teammate Newgarden said. “It just comes with the territory. It’s all pretty open, and if you look at this year and how the championship can flip in one race, to me it’s still wide-open for everybody.”

Should things run smoothly – like Power’s run to 2nd at this track in 2019 – none of this mental strife and politics may even matter. Perhaps Penske will have done everything by the books, have its return to the top of the sport and have no ethical conundrums or unhappy drivers to deal with in the offseason.

But if it ends with a single-point defeat at the hands of Dixon, in some ways because of taking the ethical high-road the week prior, it would certainly be a new way for Power and Penske to falter at the finish. Though Power dumped the idea of pressure back on his competitors this week, he knows all too well this fight isn’t finished.

“Mathematically, I’m in a better spot,” he said. “But 20 points isn’t much in this game. Nothing’s going to be given to you this weekend.”