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Wickens surprised himself with pole in first IndyCar race

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To say that Robert Wickens is a surprise pole winner for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg might be an understatement. In fact, even he admitted that he didn’t expect qualifying to go as well as it did.

“I honestly, like full disclosure, I didn’t feel that good actually in practice today,” Wickens revealed in the post-qualifying press conference. “We kind of made some changes overnight that didn’t do what we hoped it would, so we kind of had to go back to our car from Friday.”

Still, Wickens had relatively high expectations for himself entering the weekend. While he admitted that aiming for the pole would have been too much of a reach, he was very confident that he could at least start inside the top 10.

“Did I expect to qualify pole in my first IndyCar race? No. But I would have been disappointed if I was outside of the top 10 just because that’s the kind of person I am. I’m a perfectionist, I am kind of OCD when it comes down to my career and everything on that front,” he explained.

Wickens added that the conditions in qualifying were definitely a help to him. A steady drizzle hit the St. Petersburg street circuit during qualifying, and although the track was not wet enough for rain tires, conditions still proved to be plenty slippery.

But, Wickens detailed that his time in Europe – he has been racing in Europe since 2008 – meant he was used to conditions like the ones the drivers faced on Saturday, in which the track was changing dramatically on every lap.

“Sure, my experience must have helped, but my entire career I’ve always seemed to perform well in these type of conditions, the mixed, wet, dry, when there’s only one minute left and you get one more lap and the track is two seconds faster than the lap before, typically those have kind of been where I’ve seemed to excel,” Wickens asserted.

The 28-year-old Canadian finished by also revealing that he didn’t know his final lap would be good enough to take the pole until the very end, and his reaction to it on the pitlane – highlighted by a series of fist pumps on his way into the pits – reflected as much.

“All I can say is luckily the lap was good enough for pole, but I was very happy with the lap that I did, but I didn’t know it was going to be good enough for pole,” he added. “I was just hoping to kind of be into the top five and not the last of the (Firestone Fast Six) people because I think I was there for a decent part of the session trying to find some clear track.”

The result also has some history attached to it. Wickens, despite being 28 years old with a lot of success in other series, including DTM, on his resume, is making his very first IndyCar start this weekend.

Only two other times in the sport’s history has a driver won the pole in his first IndyCar start: Sebastien Bourdais, at St. Petersburg in 2003, and Nigel Mansell, at Surfers Paradise, Australia in 1993 – both drivers did so with Newman Haas Racing, coincidentally.

Wickens will try to emulate Mansell’s 1993 weekend, which subsequently saw him claim victory that day at Surfers Paradise, and complete his debut IndyCar race with a trip to Victory Lane.

Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg rolls off at 12:30 p.m. ET

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”