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Team Penske on verge of ending 8-year IndyCar title drought

Aug 28, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT

Roger Penske AP

I’m not sure whether Roger Penske, or his right-hand man Tim Cindric, has Etta James’ “At Last” in their iTunes library.

But that may well be the song that would best describe the end to an eight-year title drought if Team Penske does, as it’s very likely to do, capture the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.

Going back 20 years, Penske swept through the 1994 IndyCar season with a top-three sweep of the championship, led by Al Unser Jr.

The following year began a six-year title drought, dating until the year 2000, when Penske performed a radical team shakeup.

Gone were Unser Jr., Penske chassis, Mercedes engines and Goodyear tires; in were Gil de Ferran and his then-unheralded Brazilian countryman Helio Castroneves (who began the year with a hyphen in his surname), Reynard chassis, Honda engines and Firestone tires.

De Ferran ended Penske’s title drought in a year when 11 different drivers won races during the CART season and no less than eight drivers still had a mathematical chance at the title in the final two races.

If this all sounds like déjà vu, as we head into the 2014 season finale, it’s because it basically is.

De Ferran’s place in the role of star-who-would-be-but-hasn’t-been-champion-yet is Will Power, who since joining Penske full-time in 2010 (and part-time in 2009) has long been IndyCar’s fastest but never its finest driver.

Castroneves completes his 15th season with Penske this weekend and 17th overall, still in search of his elusive first title.

Juan Pablo Montoya has arrived back on the scene – for the first time since 2000 – and added a third set of valuable data and an invaluable presence on track.

In 2014, we’ve had 10 different race winners. We are guaranteed a first-time series champion with Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the last two champs, set to be mathematically eliminated once Power takes the green flag Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

All the stars are aligning for Penske to end its run without a title since 2006, and it would take a minor miracle for Simon Pagenaud and Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports, 81 points back of Power, to pull it off.

As my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada noted earlier this week, and I’ve noticed all season from the season opener in St. Petersburg, Power has been in a much better mental state most of if not all the season.

He’s overcome a mid-season run of penalties that threatened to destroy his title chances yet again; he’s also officially conquered ovals, and put to rest any notion that these aren’t in his wheelhouse.

Castroneves has done enough, once again, to be in title contention heading into the finale. He’s not entering Fontana in great form at the moment – four consecutive finishes outside the top-10 have cost him 79 points and turned him from 28 up to 51 down to his teammate.

Still, he’s smart and savvy enough to remain focused and committed in a 500-miler, and he will factor into the win.

The Penske pair made their championship charge early this year with three wins in the first seven races, and they’ve stayed atop the points heap despite their rivals’ challenges.

Meanwhile the Chip Ganassi Racing team – by its illustrious standards – stumbled out of the gates while adapting to an engine change and two of its four drivers also changing. Additionally, Andretti Autosport had the opposite season trajectory, with a fast start and a roller coaster second half with more downs than ups.

It’s been Penske that’s stayed consistent, yet fast, all season. Heading into Fontana, Penske has led 938 of 2,145 laps this season – a staggering 43.72 percent – between Power (615), Castroneves (241) and Juan Pablo Montoya (82).

Ganassi has the second-most laps led this season… with 440, less than half that.

The three Penske teammates have made 12 Firestone Fast Six appearances (Power 6, Castroneves 5, Montoya 1). Andretti, with four drivers, made only one more (13).

And outside of a handful of rough qualifying weekends, the three Penske teammates have given themselves less of a hassle on race days, with solid qualifying performances. Castroneves has an average grid position of 6.0, Power 7.7 this year.

All told, this has been the year where minimal outside influences have conspired to knock Penske down, and the team has been the class of the field in an intensely competitive season.

It’s time “The Captain” is rewarded with another IndyCar championship, because either Power or Castroneves has done enough to earn it.

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