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Column: Team Penske steps up for Captain when Roger Penske's leadership of IndyCar is questioned

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — There’s no better message to send to critics than an absolute domination, which was the exact Team Penske response after rival team owners took aim at Roger Penske’s series leadership.

Penske silently fumed at the criticism — which included a bold call from Michael Andretti for the 87-year-old Penske to sell IndyCar if he won't up his investments into series marketing and promotion — but refused to engage in a public battle with disgruntled stakeholders.

Instead, a renewed Josef Newgarden led all three Penske drivers to top-four finishes in Sunday’s race. Newgarden earned the 30th win of his IndyCar career, while Scott McLaughlin finished third and Will Power was fourth.

“What did you think about our team today,” Penske texted The Associated Press after the race while using the emoji of the smiling face with stars in its eyes.

It was the pick-me-up Penske needed after a tumultuous weekend following a six-month offseason filled mostly with disappointing news. Among the speedbumps IndyCar encountered since its September season finale was the delay of its long developed hybrid engine until after the Indianapolis 500; criticism from Honda that sounded as if the engine manufacturer is willing to leave the series when its contract expires, and the forced move of the season finale from the streets of Nashville to the speedway located 35 miles away from the iconic downtown.

But team owners have a variety of complaints, including a push for a charter system similar to the one in NASCAR that creates a franchise model that guarantees a return on their investment for participation in the series. There's frustration over the current car, which on Sunday opened its 12th consecutive season virtually unchanged, and an overall dissatisfaction that IndyCar races aren't promoted at the same level as Formula 1 or NASCAR.

Drivers even began to take shots at the packaged project when a handful complained that post-race podium celebrations outside of the Indy 500 are amateur and not indicative of the accomplishment achieved in succeeding in the highly competitive American open-wheel series.

IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are both owned by Roger Penske, who took control of both just two months before the COVID-19 shutdown. He kept both the series and speedway in business, hosted the Indianapolis 500 without spectators at a massive financial loss, and continued to pay teams their scheduled bonus money out of his own pocket.

Those were all points rival team owner Chip Ganassi made in his defense of Penske's leadership, and Penske himself dismissed the comparisons of “F1 does it this way” or “but NASCAR does it that way” because IndyCar has a fraction of media rights deals the other series hold, and nothing close to the revenue stream of the other two series.

Plus, IndyCar isn't trying to be F1 or NASCAR. It's trying to be IndyCar, and the single unanimous subject in the paddock is that America's open-wheel series is the most competitive in the world. Yes, Newgarden dominated in his pole-winning Sunday win, but IndyCar a year ago had seven different winners and is the most diverse series in that it races on ovals, permanent road courses and temporary street circuits.

Newgarden didn't understand the negativity, particularly after what appeared to be the largest crowd on the 20th anniversary of the first Grand Prix of St. Pete — one of the most popular races on the IndyCar 17-race calendar.

“I know it’s subjective, and I’m trying to be sort of fair about this. The crowd was amazing. I’ve seen more people here than I’ve ever seen at an IndyCar race,” Newgarden said after his win. "I saw more specific, current IndyCar team jerseys. I saw more kids. It looked really good to me. I’ve seen a ton of negative noise, and I get it. Everyone wants to jump on anything, but everything I experienced this weekend was pretty incredible.”

Of course, the Newgarden we are about to witness this season has undergone some sort of transformation and has taken a positive — and perhaps isolated — view to a season. A two-time IndyCar champion and the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner seemingly lost his love of racing during last year's four-race winning season and has used deep reflection to recapture his passion.

“I’m definitely a perfectionist. I’m an introvert, but I get hyper fixated on just trying to maximize everything,” he acknowledged. "It did start becoming a job ... but if you’re fortunate enough to be here and do this, you should enjoy it. I’d always had it. I’d learned how to thrive in the pressure and still enjoy the job, and I think it just slipped away at one point.

“I was buried with a lot of other things, and I just tried to simplify my life and get back to happiness, and I think I’ve done that in a lot of ways. I feel really happy. I feel motivated.”

Newgarden now speaks as if he expects a Max Verstappen-like season, where he wins every weekend and runs away with the championship. His offseason changes included closing the media company he co-owned, unfollowing every single person on social media, and the ending of the “Bus Bros,” which was a popular social media show starring Newgarden and McLaughlin.

Not only has the programming ended, but the one-time inseparable Penske besties seems to be professional with one another but at an arm's length in their personal relationship. When asked about Newgarden's intense new approach following Sunday's race, the former Bus Bro was remarkably fast to end the conversation.

“Doesn’t affect me,” McLaughlin said without blinking an eye.

The AP asked Penske if there's been a falling out between Newgarden and McLaughlin, and it was news to him. But in a lighthearted moment, he vowed to find out: “Gives me something to do,” he laughed.

Sounded a whole lot better than the pounding he'd taken all weekend, saved only by the pounding Team Penske gave right back in Sunday's race.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing