INDIANAPOLIS — Will Power and Scott McLaughlin joined Josef Newgarden behind a table draped in a checked flag Wednesday, the trio of IndyCar drivers the very definition of focus. Their eyes were trained on the project before them, fingers nearly twitching.
Anticipating the start, all three dove into the work, moments before the emcee yelled, "Go!"
That sums up the competitive atmosphere at Team Penske, though, that at a community event days before the Indianapolis 500, all three drivers angled for a head start — Let's be honest, they cheated — against a bunch of elementary school kids. They were in a race to build an IndyCar out of some masking tape and cardboard, and those couple of extra seconds counted.
Just like they do at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It's there, at the historic oval owned by Roger Penske, that his team has struggled with time lately. Power only qualified 12th for Sunday's race to match the best starting position of any Team Penske driver since 2019, the year before "The Captain" purchased the speedway. McLaughlin will start a row back in 14th and Newgarden another row back in 17th place.
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Ahead are all four cars from Arrow McLaren and both from A.J. Foyt Racing, two other Chevrolet-powered teams.
"There's no place to hide. We're just not fast enough," Newgarden admitted. "I feel terrible for our team because I am front and center of being able to witness the amount of work that's gone into this place. It's not from a shortage of effort. We're obviously missing something else. I don't know what we're missing, but I know we're missing it."
The team's race performance has been a little better.
Newgarden finished fifth in 2020 and led the race a year ago before finishing 13th. In between, Simon Pagenaud finished third behind this year's pole sitter Alex Palou and Helio Castroneves, who spent the majority of his career with Penske and won three Indy 500s there before capturing his record-tying fourth in 2021 with Meyer Shank Racing.
"When you look at the past few years, you've got to start up front, when you look at who's won the race and where they have started from," said Team Penske president Tim Cindric, who will be inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame on Friday. "It's much tougher in the race to get to the front from the back."
From the middle of the pack, too.
There appears to be no single reason why Team Penske has been a tick off the past few years, though its recent Indy 500 results have curiously coincided with the addition of aeroscreens in IndyCar to improve driver safety.
In 2019, the last year before their introduction, Power qualified second, Pagenaud third and Newgarden fourth. Pagenaud wound up winning an 18th Borg-Warner Trophy for the team while Newgarden and Power also finished in the top five.
"I think Indy, there's a lot of recipes that can work here, and I think our approach of trying to get the details right has always been true at this team," Newgarden said. "I don't think we're going to change that. But sometimes there's different elements that we may not look at the right way, and we go back and we look at them again and say, 'Can we look at them differently?' I think that has been a core thing for us, just trying to reassess every little detail in the way that we're examining it."
Trouble is that everyone else is likewise examining every little detail.
The spec chassis produced by Dallara has remained largely unchanged since 2012. So have the engine specs. And that has given smaller, underfunded teams time to close the engineering gap on teams like Penske that have far more resources.
"It's been stable for so long that everybody is figuring it out, which makes it tighter across the board," said four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, who drove nearly his entire career for Penske and now serves as a team advisor.
"It's probably the easiest time to get into the series and be competitive with the cars, and being able to establish yourself, get the right people," Mears continued, "because you're getting the same blocks everybody is playing with. Now it is figuring out how to stack them. As people learn how to stack them, it gets tighter and tighter."
That was evident the day after pole qualifying, when Power went to the top of the speed chart in practice.
"All these teams turn up, they just improve every year, and the car doesn't change. So there's a ceiling," Power said. "I feel like we have good horsepower, and I think we're in good shape. A lot of people are extremely good, a lot of teams. It's almost going to be a day of no mistakes in the pits and just keeping out of trouble on track to give yourself a shot at the end."