(Photo courtesy IndyCar)

Hinchcliffe snaps Team Penske pole dominance in 2016

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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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James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.