When last becomes first: Draw key in Gateway qualifying

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MADISON, Ill. – It’s rare one finds a way to weave a biblical verse into Verizon IndyCar Series race weekend copy, but for the second straight weekend, one has.

The phrase “the first shall be last, and the last, first” has provided an apt description of how oval qualifying has shaken out, first last week at Pocono Raceway and then again tonight at Gateway Motorsports Park ahead of Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Takuma Sato knocked Simon Pagenaud off the pole at Pocono as the last driver out, having benefited from the aid of his three Andretti Autosport teammates – particularly Alexander Rossi – to win the top spot for the ABC Supply 500. Granted, that was Sato’s only highlight of the weekend and he quickly faded in the race.

Tonight, it was Will Power’s turn. Power was quick already as it was, having led practice in hotter conditions earlier in the afternoon, but was almost gifted a perfect spot as it was by virtue of having the 21st and last spot drawn in the random draw.

That, like Sato last week, meant Power had optimal track conditions in addition to an optimal setup – and as such, Power, like Sato, obliterated the prior pole mark.

The official rule in the INDYCAR Rule Book is Rule 8.2.2, Qualifications Order – INDYCAR shall determine the Qualifications order by a random draw. An Entrant’s representative may only draw for an entered Car. If an Entrant does not have an authorized representative present at the drawing, INDYCAR will draw for the unrepresented Car.

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It left Josef Newgarden, who was poised to capture his second career pole (first and only one was at Milwaukee 2015) deflated as Power uncorked his 189.642 mph average speed, more than 1.3 mph faster than Newgarden’s 188.316 mph.

This marks the Tennessee native’s sixth runner-up grid position since his only pole position, and also saw him call for a rethink of the rule in 2018.

“Not when you go last, no,” Newgarden responded when asked if he was surprised Power beat him to the top spot.

“When you qualify on a short oval, it’s always the best to go last. You get the most rubber, you get the coolest track temp.

“So I’m hoping next year they change that rule where you sort of get rewarded for performance in the way you order. It’s even worse if you’re first to go out, then it’s really bad on a short oval, especially when you have other rubber that’s laid down.”

For proof of Newgarden’s latter point, poor Sebastian Saavedra – who at Indianapolis also drew the short straw to be sat next to Fernando Alonso and the subsequent throng of media covering him on media day – never had a chance today. The Colombian struggled in practice in his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda and being first out, posted a two-lap average of 177.700 mph. That was nearly four mph slower than the next slowest two-lap average, the similarly early drawn Marco Andretti at 181.191 mph (he went out fourth).

Power downplayed the draw advantage, but it was fairly obvious that he’d be able to draw on his teammates and pick the right downforce and gearing levels by the time he went out.

“No, I think all my teammates are really fast. Josef was really quick. You know, I didn’t know. All I knew is that I had a very similar setup to him, and it was about getting the most out of it,” Power said

“I think once I saw my first lap, I thought, yeah, this is pretty strong and confident.”

Power credited his teammates – who will start second (Newgarden), third (Helio Castroneves) and fourth (Simon Pagenaud) behind him – for the feedback more than the draw for how he got the pole.

“I think it helps having four cars because when your teammates are running this amount of downforce for qualifying, you’re like, ‘Alright, if I want to contend for the pole, I have to do that, too,'” Power said.

“We all push each other, trim out a lot. So yeah, it’s — I think Chevy has a very good package around here as we’ve seen on the short ovals, so that creates a gap, and then obviously Team Penske is very strong.”

The Penske quartet started in the top four positions as recently as Road America just five races ago, when Castroneves took the pole, Power was second, Newgarden was third and Pagenaud fourth.

If there’s a silver lining for Newgarden, it’s that his three wins this year have come from second (Mid-Ohio) and seventh (Toronto and Barber) on the grid this year. And the Mid-Ohio win saw Power on pole, with Newgarden second – also his most recent race driving the No. 2 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet.

Newgarden leads the points standings by 18 over Scott Dixon, who qualified seventh, while Power enters the race now 41 points back (was 42 entering the weekend) in fifth in his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

Ken Roczen signs with HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki for 2023

Roczen Progressive Ecstar Suzuki
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ANAHEIM, California – Ken Roczen will make the move from HRC Honda to H.E.P. Motorsports with the Progressive Ecstar Suzuki team, ending a long and eventful offseason that saw his split from his longstanding team after he committed to running World Supercross (WSX).

“H.E.P. Motorsports is thrilled to announce that the team has signed Ken Roczen as its premier rider for the 2023 season,” the team announced on Instagram. “Former AMA Motocross champion Roczen will be aboard a Suzuki RM-Z450. Roczen, who won his most recent championship on a Suzuki, will be reunited with the brand and bring his exciting style, determination, and grit back to the RM Army.

“Ken Roczen will compete in the upcoming 2023 Supercross and Motocross Championship series which is set to start on January 7 at Anaheim Stadium in Southern California.”

For Roczen, it is a return to the bike of his youth and on which he had some of his greatest professional success.

“This thing has been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks in the making, but there was so much uncertainty,” Roczen told NBC Sports during Monster Energy Supercross Media Sessions. “It was a very unique situation. I just finally signed two nights ago, so it’s really only legit once the ink hits the paper. It’s been in the works for a long time, but there were just a lot of questions and a lot of input from a lot of other teams too.

“Good things take time, and I’m okay with that. I grew up riding Suzuki. Ot’s like a homecoming. It’s a special feeling”

Roczen won the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship on a Suzuki before making the move to Honda. That year he won nine of 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second as he easily outpaced Eli Tomac by 86 points. He finished third in his next Pro Motocross outing in 2018 after sitting out the outdoor season in 2017.

“I am beyond excited to reconnect with Suzuki for the 3rd time in my career. We’ve had a lot of success in the past and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together in our future.” Roczen said in the Instagram post.