NEWTON, Iowa (AP) Every year, Team Penske arrives in Iowa with a host of championship-contending drivers and leaves without a win.
The 10th edition of the IndyCar race at Iowa Speedway could be Penske’s best shot at breaking through.
The grueling demands of Iowa’s 0.875-mile bull ring typically rewards the most skilled drivers. Penske has plenty of those, as Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Will Power entered the weekend first, second and third in the point standings.
Pagenaud will start Sunday’s race from the pole, followed by Josef Newgarden, Castroneves, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball.
Still, Penske has lagged far behind Andretti Autosport, winner of the last six races and seven of nine overall on IndyCar’s shortest track.
“We’ve been close many times,” said Castroneves, winless in Iowa despite two poles and five starts on the front row. “The good news is Team Penske is one, two, three, and that’s our goal to keep going all the way to the end of the season. But we have a big test here.”
Andretti could use another strong showing in Iowa to push at least one of its drivers into championship contention.
Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi leads the way for the team in 10th, just one point ahead of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay has won the last two races in Iowa. Last season’s victory helped turn a miserable season into a decent one as Hunter-Reay went on to win at Pocono and finish sixth in the standings.
Hunter-Reay has also finished in the top four in each of his last two races.
But replicating his previous success here might be tough.
Hunter-Reay had a miserable qualifying session and will start 20th out of 22 cars. Although no driver has ever won from the pole in Iowa, no one has taken first after starting from so far behind either.
“It doesn’t really change my mentality at all. Every year I have to come back and work just as hard to get it done. Seems like it gets harder and harder every year, actually,” Hunter-Reay said.
Perhaps Sunday will provide Newgarden an opportunity to thrust himself into the championship conversation. Newgarden took second behind Hunter-Reay in 2014 and 2015, and he’ll start on the front row at Iowa for the first time all season.
“Yeah, it’s always tough. I mean, when you qualify second you think `Ah!’ It’s just really hard to qualify second. You almost wish you qualified fifth or something. That sounds really stupid, but it’s always tough; we needed that last little bit,” Newgarden said. “But it’s nothing to complain about. I think we have fast cars.”
Should Penske fail to win yet again in Iowa this weekend, it can take solace in the fact its drivers will get at least two more chances here.
Iowa Speedway announced Saturday that it has extended its agreement with IndyCar through 2018.