Bobble aside, Penske team primed for domination

Updated: May 22, 2006, 9:45 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Even the month's lone hiccup for Team Penske came in the wake of unmatched speed.

Helio Castroneves
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves is the series leader and the top bet to win his third Indy 500.

When Sam Hornish Jr. crashed his backup car during a practice run Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was in the first turn after a 226.256 mph lap, the day's fastest. The speed would have been good enough to start on the outside of the second row for Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

For Team Penske, speed and success have been abundant during the month of May. Hornish showed it by posting the daily top speed every day of practice save one, then on Pole Day claimed the prestigious top spot with a four-lap average of 228.985 mph. Just a couple hours before, in morning practice, he came within an eyelash of 230 mph.

Teammate Helio Castroneves, never far behind in his identical Dallara-Honda, took the second spot on the grid at 228.008 mph, giving Team Penske its sixth 1-2 start in the 500 and first since 1990 when Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears qualified first and second.

It's been a breathtaking show of Penske power, but also, it should be noted, Penske perseverance. While the team has been on a roll here and throughout the young Indy Racing League season -- Castroneves is first in overall points with two wins in three races, Hornish is third -- last year was a different story.

A year ago, before Honda became the sole engine provider for the series, the team was powered by Toyota. Which was to say, underpowered, as teams with Hondas had a distinct horsepower advantage.

"There's no question that we were at some disadvantage," owner Roger Penske said. "We didn't say anything about it."

Of course, a team with the resources of Penske would have been ridiculed as whiners were they to voice displeasure, and they wouldn't have anyway with sponsors to keep happy. Instead, they worked around the engine conundrum and looked at ways to improve aerodynamically, finding an extra tick of speed from sleeker rearview mirrors as just one small example.

"Our guys did a great job of really focusing on the things that we could affect and not worrying about the things that we couldn't affect," Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said. "We did everything that we could to put ourselves in a position to at least compete on race day."

Hornish qualified his car second and Castroneves fifth for last year's 500, though race day was less successful with Hornish crashing after 146 laps and Castroneves fading to ninth. But with last year's tweaks added to this year's Honda power, Team Penske has been well ahead of the field.

At Indy, Penske cars want to win the 500-mile race, of course, but along the way they want to try to lay claim to everything else. So far they have, from Hornish's pole and hot laps to even winning the Louis Schweitzer Award for design after creating a new tool to help adjust the angle on the rear wing for downforce purposes.

But when reminded of all that during a weekend press conference, Penske quickly said "now we have the pit stop competition coming up." That's how his mind still operates, even after winning a 13th pole position with the favorite to land his 14th Indy 500 title.

Right now, perhaps the other two-car, household-name giant in Gasoline Alley is the only roadblock to the Penske parade to the checkered flag. Chip Ganassi Racing's Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon have consistently been just behind Penske on the speed charts and qualified third and fourth, respectively. And Wheldon, it seems to require repeating often, did win the thing last year.

Andretti Green's busy five-car operation qualified Tony Kanaan fifth and 19-year-old Marco Andretti ninth, but also had Dario Franchitti fall to a disappointing 17th with a car that had been a top-10 runner all month.

Fernandez Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing have capable drivers with Indy experience (and even a win with Rahal Letterman's Buddy Rice), but still lag a couple miles per hour behind.

That pretty much leads the discussion back to Penske. As usual.

"We regard that team, especially coming to this place, as the team to beat. They always have been, whether it was three years ago or 10 years ago or last year," Rahal Letterman general manager Ray Leto said. "We're always racing those guys as a team. It's certainly a rivalry."

One that Penske has shown so far this month to be very one-sided.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motor sports and a contributor to ESPN.com