Hinchcliffe snaps Team Penske pole dominance in 2016

(Photo courtesy IndyCar)

James Hinchcliffe not only won the pole for next Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, he also single-handedly snapped Team Penske’s stranglehold on qualifying No. 1 in races this season.

Team Penske drivers had captured the pole in each of the first five races of 2016. Will Power took the season-opening pole at St. Petersburg although didn’t start there because he missed the race, then Helio Castroneves started from the pole at both Phoenix and Long Beach, and Simon Pagenaud led the field to green at both Birmingham and last week’s Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

If you extrapolate that a bit larger and include those drivers that qualified No. 1 in 2015, the last two races of the season saw Penske drivers start on the pole at Pocono (Castroneves) and Sonoma (Power) — meaning Hinchcliffe actually stopped a seven-race Team Penske streak.

Team Penske also earned the pole in the first five races of last year and captured 13 poles overall in the 16-race season. That means coming into Sunday, Penske drivers had earned 18 of the last 21 poles starting with the 2015 season opener at St. Petersburg.

So, Hinchcliffe’s feat is all the more special, as the last non-Penske driver to earn a pole was defending series champ Scott Dixon at Mid-Ohio last August 2. Fittingly, Dixon also snapped the Penske pole streak at Indy last year.

But when it came to capturing the pole in Team Penske’s 50th anniversary year, none of its drivers could find the magic formula.

So when the Indy 500 takes the green flag next Sunday, Team Penske’s lineup looks like this – and here’s what each driver had to say:

* Power will start sixth (outside of Row 2).

I just couldn’t get the Verizon Chevy up to speed,” Pagenaud said. “We were wide open all of the way around.  The conditions were a little harder, so we added some downforce and, unfortunately, it just wasn’t fast enough. Despite that, I’m still proud of the Verizon Chevy team and very happy with the run and getting into the Fast Nine. It was fun to be there and, now, we’re looking forward to the race.”

* Simon Pagenaud, who has won the last three races this season, will start eighth (middle of Row 3).

“The conditions changed drastically today from yesterday,” Pagenaud said. “We had cold weather, was gusty. Now it is hot and greasy on the race track.  It is really hard for the engineers to find the perfect combination of aero versus drag.  I think the Menards Chevy is good. We tried to get the best out of it. Sometimes it doesn’t go perfectly your way. I would rather it went my way on race day.”

* Castroneves will start his quest for a record-tying fourth Indy 500 win from ninth position (outside of Row 3).

“We tried everything we could,” Castroneves said. “In the morning we tried a little downforce that was too much and the track was really hot. Now in the end, maybe I wish I could have done what I did before. In the end now we have to think about the race. Obviously, you want to be No. 1 all the time that is the spirit of competitiveness, but now we have to think about the race.”

* Defending 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya will start from 17th position (middle of Row 6). Montoya had one of the strangest tales of qualifying in several years when a trash bag got caught in the grill of his Chevrolet.

“Whoever is spotting in Turn 3 is probably not paying attention,” he said. “The bag was there. I saw it on the grass and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s odd.’ And when I came to Turn 3, it was in the middle of the groove. I had nowhere to go. I just hit it and lost all of the front air from under the car. It just went straight. I got on the brakes, trying not to hit the wall. Luckily, we got another run, but they didn’t let us check the car. I think the wing or something bent with the force of the bag.”

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Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens later tweeted about the possibility of racing the Indy 500 and said his goal was “always to get back to the top level of motorsport” whether it’s IndyCar or IMSA.

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.