IndyCar: Aleshin stars, Pagenaud keeps pace in Pocono

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Just two years ago, a then oval rookie named Simon Pagenaud wowed the Verizon IndyCar Series veterans in his first few races on the left-hand only circuits for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports.

Two years later, and Pagenaud’s rookie teammate Mikhail Aleshin is doing the same through his first three oval starts.

Aleshin, the Russian who’s been exciting to watch most of the season in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda, continued his flare for the excitement on the ovals by mastering Pocono and finishing seventh in his first start on the “Tricky Triangle.”

It followed his good run that was spoiled at the Indianapolis 500, and then his first oval top-10 last month at Texas Motor Speedway, when he finished seventh.

Sunday in Pocono, Aleshin started 12th but already cracked the top 10 by Lap 7. He ran as high as fifth during pit stop sequences, and consistently ran between fifth and seventh the rest of the day.

“The car was fast, and we didn’t struggle anywhere mechanically,” Aleshin said. “We did have some radio issues we had to deal with, however. The car was strong, which allowed me to push out there and challenge other drivers.”

Aleshin moved up to 13th in the points on 263 points, second best in the four-driver rookie class of 2014. Down 77 points, it’s doubtful he’ll catch Carlos Munoz for top rookie honors (sixth), but he is now 36 and 39 points clear of Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Huertas in 16th and 17th, respectively. Additionally, Aleshin now sits only eight points out of the top 10 in points, with 10th-placed Sebastien Bourdais on 271.

Meanwhile Pagenaud fell back to earth a bit after leading the team’s 1-2 in Houston Race 2 last week. Pagenaud started 11th and finished sixth in what was a fairly nondescript race in the No. 77 Oculus Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda. The team started with a high downforce setting and spent the rest of the day trying to get the balance right; Pagenaud said it was difficult to pass.

But with Will Power finishing 10th after his latest penalty earned, the two-time winner gained 15 points on his rival in the championship and now sits third heading to Iowa next week behind the Team Penske teammates Power and Helio Castroneves.

“I’m very happy with how the team handled the challenges we were faced with today,” he said. “The beginning of my race may have looked a little boring to the fans, but I was just trying to understand what I would need at the end. Finishing sixth today is great considering we didn’t start up front with the strongest race package.”

Josef Newgarden wins pole for Grand Prix of Alabama

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With time running off the clock, Josef Newgarden lapped Barber Motorsports Park with a speed of 122.773 mph to win his third career pole and first on this track in the Grand Prix of Alabama.

Newgarden was .0128 seconds faster than teammate Scott Dixon in second.

Newgarden has two previous wins at Barber. He won last year’s edition of this race after starting seventh and in 2015 from fifth.

“I didn’t know if that was going to be enough,” Newgarden said after winning the pole.

“Team Chevy has done a good job,” Newgarden said. “They’ve really given us good power this weekend – good driveability. We’re going to need some fuel mileage tomorrow, which I think we’ll have. But it’s going to get mixed up with the rain.”

Dixon’s lap of 122.750 mph was not quite enough.

“I’m sure you could pick out a number of different things on a lap when it’s that close,” Power said about what made the slight difference between him and Newgarden. “A little mistake out of 9; a little lift here or there.”

Sebastien Bourdais (122.605 mph) qualified third, with Ryan Hunter-Reay (122.159) and James Hinchliffe (121.859) rounding out the top five.

Scott Dixon was the last driver in the top six.

Fast 12

Newgarden topped this chart with a speed of 123.475 mph.

He brought Power, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Sebastien Bourdais along with him to the Fast 6.

Marco Andretti (122.480), Alexander Rossi (122.216), Simon Pagenaud (122.050), Robert Wickens (122.042), Zach Veach (121.784) and Ed Jones (120.984) failed to advance.

Round 1, Group 1

Newgarden posted the fastest single lap in round one, group one of qualification for the Grand Prix of Alabama with a speed of 122.550 mph.

Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Wickens, and Andretti also advance to the fast 12.

Taking the final slot was Jones with a speed of 119.835 mph after an off-course excursion in final practice.

This was Andretti’s first advancement to the fast 12 for the first time since 2014.

Round 1, Group 2

Power had the fastest lap of 121.570 mph.

Bourdais, Veach (who is battling food poisoning-like symptoms), Rossi, and Pagenaud grabbed positions 2-4.

Scott Dixon had an uncharacteristically slow lap of 121.006, but managed to advance to the fast 12 when the session was red-flagged for an incident involving Tony Kanaan.

With three minutes remaining, Kanaan spun into the tire barriers while leaving pit road. Since he brought out the red flag, he lost his qualification time of 119.996 mph.

Takuma Sato had slipped off-course midway through the session and posted only the Ninth-fastest speed of 120.789 mph.