Following his fourth win of the season, Will Power has to be the unquestioned 2010 leader of the Penske racing stable. While Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe have each picked up a win apiece, Power's car holds the Verizon sponsorship on the sidepod, and it is the young Australian who holds a relatively comfortable 42-point advantage in the race for the "Your Name Here" IZOD IndyCar Series Championship Trophy.
So with the racing silly season just beginning to heat up, what happens should Penske scale back because of a lack of sponsorship?
For better or worse, Penske has largely been insulated from ride-buy drivers, but would open-wheel racing's most successful owner consider a third car if a "lesser-talented" driver came along, but with sponsorship? Personally, I don't see it happening, but I also don't see Penske continuing to run three cars without securing some major sponsorship.
And while Pennzoil will rejoin the Penske sponsorship group in 2011, most of that money appears ticketed for the NASCAR side of operations, which seemingly takes away one possibility for the almighty sponsorship dollar.
For the purposes of this theoretical scenario, let's say that Will Power wins the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship. With that in his pocket, Penske isn't letting him go to another team, especially as he continues to improve on ovals to go along with a supreme mastery of road courses.
That leaves two men fighting for one spot. Thunderdome doesn't seem the appropriate place for the Helio Castroneves-Ryan Briscoe showdown, so we'll attempt to settle it here instead. Which one, if either, would Penske keep?
The Case for Helio Castroneves
- He's a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion. Those don't exactly grow on trees. With that comes a significant amount of notoriety. If Penske can turn that fame into an influx of sponsorship cash (though they haven't seemed to yet), it would be a notch for the Brazilian.
- He's Brazilian. In case you haven't noticed, it seems to be a bit easier for Brazilians to come up with sponsorships right now. You're telling me a Brazilian company wouldn't want to be on the sidepod in Indianapolis in 2011 when Castroneves hunts for Indy 500 No. 4 in the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Hell, I'm thinking about cutting a check right now after typing that out.
- Castroneves owns the soccer-mom/senior citizens market. That Dancing With the Stars win, while quickly becoming as fashionable as acid-washed Jordaches, still resonates with people who like to watch other people execute tangos, rumbas and other dances I quickly forgot about after a short stay in cotillion classes.
- He's one of the most recognizable faces in the entire series, because of the three 500 wins and the Dancing with the Stars titles. Makes marketing pretty easy.
- A proven winner. 17 career wins bear that out.
The Case Against Helio Castroneves
- How much does he have left in the tank? Castroneves turned 35 this year and has a young daughter at home. Is he holding on solely for a few more runs at a fourth Indianapolis 500?
- For all the winning, Castroneves has never won a championship. Finishing second twice (2002, 2008) in the points chase, the Brazilian has always been able to deliver in qualifications, but not always on race day. On an otherwise spotless record, the lack of a series championship will always be the "but" in the argument against Castroneves as an all-time great in open-wheel racing. While as long as Castroneves remains at Penske, he is among the contenders to win a series title, it seems unlikely he will do so against rising competition.
The Case for Ryan Briscoe
- He's a young, talented driver. Not as young as a few other spring chickens, but Briscoe nearly won a series championship in his first season with Penske, coming a few laps shy of the title. Along the way, he showed he could win races, recording six wins in two and a half years with Penske.
- Consummate teammate. Despite being overshadowed by Castroneves' personality and three Indianapolis 500 wins and Power's 2010 dominance, Briscoe is the good soldier in the Penske stable (actually all three are). One never hears any complaints from the Sydney native.
- He has more wins (six) than Castroneves (five) over the last two and a half years.
- Seems to rally at exactly the right time. Winless and struggling early with Penske, Briscoe rallied for his first career win at Milwaukee in 2008. Similarly, he did the same in 2010 at Texas after a tough first five races.
The Case Against Ryan Briscoe
- While Briscoe has been successful over the last few years, he still has a tendency to make mistakes at the wrong time. Whether it be spinning the tires exiting the pits at Motegi in 2009 or failing to make a turn in Brazil while under pressure from Ryan Hunter-Reay. And the highlight/lowlight of the 2008 Indianapolis 500 is Briscoe sitting in his damaged car, refusing to get out as Danica Patrick stomped down pit lane towards him after a wreck knocked them both from the race.
- Along with this, does he have the mettle to win a championship? The 2009 season would indicate that he possesses the needed thick skin to compete.
- It's not a knock against Ryan Briscoe, but for a buttoned-down organization like Team Penske, is it possible that they occasionally view his wife's (Nicole Manske-Briscoe) actions as an occasional distraction? She used her husband's twitter account to start the #ParkMilka movement (the sentiment I agree with), and then blasted Graham Rahal on Sunday for giving the chrome horn to her husband in Toronto. While supporting your husband is understandable, she is also a racing journalist. Blurring those lines could cause some friction in the Penske paddock, possibly, especially if her husband's career continues to grow.
Without knowing any contract details, it's fuzzy math trying to figure out where anyone would land in a two or three-car operation. In any case, I would have to bet on Briscoe being the one on the shakiest ground, with Castroneves retiring in a few years and Penske returning to a two-car team with Power and a young driver in hand.