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Inside IndyCar: Big 3 — Penske, Ganassi & … McLaren?

Step aside Andretti Autosport, you’re being replaced as a Big Three NTT IndyCar team.

For years, that label had been applied to Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Andretti Autosport. Which makes sense considering that since 2003, when that triumvirate began, they’ve won roughly 85 percent of the races and every championship.

However, since 2012 when Andretti won their last championship, the team has been on a constant quest chasing an elusive golden egg in the form of consistency. While that search has been on-going for the long-time IndyCar squad run by Michael Andretti, a new challenger has been on the rise – Arrow McLaren.

Unlike Andretti, McLaren is producing steadily and earning the right to be on the same tier as Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Remarkably there’s been no drop off for McLaren after Team Principle Zak Brown added a third car this season. Its possible that the inclusion of Alexander Rossi has pushed the drivers to achieve more than in 2022 when both cars finished in the top ten of points. Pato O’Ward is racing like each lap is his last, similar to a young Paul Tracy, and growing his fanbase with his actions on-track and marketing off-track. Felix Rosenqvist has qualified well and is starting to stream top tens together. And Rossi is gaining familiarity and learning a new team after being with Andretti since 2016. He’s a fast learner, apparently; with his best results for the team coming in the last three races, all top fives.

With no wins yet in 2023, the season still is going really well for the team as a whole. All three McLaren cars sit in the top 10 in points, and are becoming regulars in the top five during races. As far as the championship goes, prior to his accident at Detroit, O’Ward was well in the hunt for the lead of the championship, and if not for close racing with Ericsson as the Indianapolis 500 neared a conclusion, he’d be looking better. With his four career wins and third in the standings in 2021, he’s exactly the type of driver a team looking to beat Penske and Ganassi needs.

Rosenqvist is lower in points than he finished last year, but the last few weeks he’s been what McLaren saw when they signed him to team with O’Ward. No better time to show that skill either as his fellow Swede Marcus Ericsson has found nothing but success with Ganassi after basically swapping teams with Rosenqvist before the 2021 season. With the contract mess with Alex Palou last year delaying a possible replacement, Rosenqvist needed to prove everyone wrong that he belonged. After a slow start, with two crashes, Rosenqvist is now up there mixing it with his teammates, and ran as well as O’Ward at the Indy 500, leading 33 laps. If he can keep his car out of trouble, he can easily climb up the standings from his 10th-spot.

But why is McLaren pushing Andretti aside now? It’s because Andretti’s Modus Operandi over the last few years has been to run well at various races, but not string performance together over the whole season. Take for example this year, Andretti has one win, yes, but that team performance was bracketed by one top ten in the previous race, and a top five at the next one. The rest of their cars finished 12th or lower. That’s with four cars in their stable.

For McLaren, all three cars are running well, and it seems their knowledge sharing is working. The on track competitiveness is starting to spill over within the team itself, as the previous battle between Rosenqvist and Rossi at Detroit shows. But that’s to be expected if you want the whole team up front.

Team Penske is known for their open competitiveness with one strict Roger Penske rule: don’t wreck your teammate. At Chip Ganassi Racing, Dario Franchitti was a constant competitor who challenged Scott Dixon, which made him a better driver as three more championships post-2013 show. The talent at McLaren is doing likewise for the trio there.

And that’s why they are finding the constant pace to compete. None of the drivers want to be behind their teammate. Compare that to Andretti Autosport who has Colton Herta as their only driver in the top 10 in points.

Don’t hold the zero in the win column against them either, it’s coming. O’Ward is driving too well right now to stay out of victory lane and when the first trophy is earned, expect the papaya rush to be on.

See also
Conor Daly, ECR Parting Ways

Looking beyond this year, it’s noteworthy that things will only get better as this lineup might change. O’Ward is not going anywhere, he’s as safe of a number one driver as Dixon is at Chip Ganassi Racing, but McLaren has to make room for the incoming Palou (as long as that situation doesn’t get complex again). That means Rosenqvist is fighting for a job. When a person’s profession is on the line, it only makes someone more competitive. Add that to the bull-seeing-red type driver O’Ward is and the hungry Rossi, and the team is quaking for the green flag to fall at each race.

Brown has grown this effort focused on one thing – winning. The results and competitiveness is there. Now, they will look to get their first championship this season along with multiple wins and officially join IndyCar’s Big Three tier.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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