Penske Proves Indy Is Still King

Just in case anyone’s forgotten the importance of an Indianapolis 500 win, drop by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today or tomorrow.

That’s where you’ll find CART team owner Roger Penske and his driver, CART title contender Gil de Ferran.

What’s that prove, you ask?

Well, less than five days after completing a tire test for Firestone at the historic 2.5-mile oval in Speedway, Ind., Penske and de Ferran will travel more than 2,000 miles to Fontana, Calif., to try to wrap up the CART title.

Don’t think for a second that touring the flat, nearly bankless Brickyard in Indy Racing Northern Light Series cars will in any way shape or form prepare de Ferran for the title fight he’ll be up against on the high-speed, high banks of California Speedway.

The two are worlds apart -- in setup and importance. Indy is the king in this equation.

How else can you explain Penske risking injury to de Ferran, the driver who could just days later capture the Captain’s first championship since 1994 and complete Marlboro Team Penske’s comeback from CART also-rans to CART title-holders? Why not send Helio Castroneves?

The answer is simple: The Indianapolis 500 still means more to a driver, a team, an owner and, nowadays, a series than any other accomplishment.

Doubt it?

Ask any CART fan about it and they’ll tout having Indy 500 winners Juan Montoya and Kenny Brack while at the same time trying to explain how the 500 really doesn’t mean much anymore. Better yet, consult any press release, newspaper article or other published material concerning Penske, Montoya or Brack and count the number of times the Indianapolis 500 is mentioned.

Or, just turn to Page 37 of the Team Penske media guide. That’s where Team Penske’s accomplishments are broken down. The only race mentioned by name is the Indianapolis 500.

They’re all proud to be associated with the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and they should be. Winning the Indianapolis 500 puts a team on top of the motorsports world.

That’s someplace Penske hasn’t been in a while.

So, he’ll gamble with the CART championship if it might give him any advantage in the 85th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May of 2001.

Looks to me like the watered-down Indy 500 still means a lot to someone.

Just ask Al Unser Jr. He was the last driver to win a CART title while driving a Penske machine in 1994. The next year, Unser Jr. was on the outside looking in during the last 500 that featured CART. Penske’s other driver, Emerson Fittipaldi, also failed to qualify. That failure goes down as one of Team Penske’s lowest points.

Hmmm. Then again, maybe Penske’s just trying to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

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