Team Penske qualifies for season finale like it did for season opener: 1-2-3-4

Leave a comment

In one of the most unique twists of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Team Penske is ending things the way it started out: 1-2-3-4.

That’s the same way Team Penske qualified for the season opener at St. Petersburg. Will Power took the pole (although missed the race with concussion-like symptoms), Simon Pagenaud was second, followed by Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya.

And now, as we prepare for Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Team Penske has again qualified and will start the race in 1-2-3-4 order.

This time, it’ll be Pagenaud on the pole, followed by Castroneves, Montoya and Power.

“What a great job by Team Penske to qualify 1-2-3-4,” Castroneves said Saturday. “It just shows how well we are working together.”

Added Montoya, “It’s nice to see Penske sweep the front two rows. I know we did it in St. Pete but didn’t start that way after Will couldn’t race. It’s neat to be a part of.”

While the big story of the day will end with the determination of whether Pagenaud or Power wins the championship, its start is rather unique in IndyCar annals.

But at the same time, however, Team Penske’s qualifying achievement isn’t a complete surprise. In this season’s 16 races, when it comes to Fast 6 showings, Pagenaud leads with nine, followed by Power with eight, Castroneves with seven and Montoya with four.

More so, as a team, the Penske boys have earned 28 of 60 total Fast 6 appearances this season. In addition to the 1-2-3-4 qualifying efforts at St. Petersburg and Sonoma, they also were part of the half-dozen fast pack in one other race.

Castroneves said he was “pretty confident” that he had won the pole, but Pagenaud’s late-session final run not only displaced Castroneves, it also earned Pagenaud another point for earning the pole.

Pagenaud now comes into Sunday’s race with a 44-point margin over Power for the championship, as opposed to the 43-point edge it had been coming into this weekend. With double points at stake, every extra point counts.

“What a dream season, seven poles, I mean it’s unbelievable,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously, I’m super excited. I knew we could do it, but this has not been my favorite track in the past (this is his first career pole at Sonoma). It doesn’t seem to be the case anywhere anymore.

“… That is what I call the animal instincts and you don’t think, you just go. This is the best moment when you can drive this way.”

Added Castroneves, “Man, that was so close! We’ve been fast all weekend and we showed it again today in qualifying. We felt good with our approach and the car was really consistent. I made just a little mistake and that probably cost us in the end because Simon was so fast, especially on red tires. Congratulations to Simon – that is good for him in the championship.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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

Leave a comment

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.