Team Penske endures troublesome day at St. Petersburg

Photo: IndyCar
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In a surprising twist of fate, none of the three drivers from the powerhouse Team Penske were factors during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with all three suffering various problems that prevented them from being contenders during the race.

The trouble started early when Will Power, who started second alongside polesitter Robert Wickens, spun in Turn 3 after battling with Wickens for the early lead on the opening lap. Power’s No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet gently backed into the wall, doing damage to the rear wing and eventually forcing a pit stop for repairs.

Will Power had to recover from a Lap 1 spin at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

Power eventually rebounded to finish 10th, but his was a day of “what might have been.”

“I was on the back foot from the very beginning,” Power detailed afterward. “(Robert) Wickens and I touched in Turn 1 and I spun around. There wasn’t a lot of room. That set us back and we fought the rest of the day.”

Still, Power’s spirits are high and he thinks Sunday’s race was merely a small hiccup.

“Not a perfect day, but we have a good Verizon Chevrolet team, and we will come back ready to race at (ISM Raceway),” he finished.

Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden also saw his fair share of challenges, which started during Saturday qualifying when he failed to advance out of Round 1.

Starting 13th, Newgarden had his eyes set on moving forward, but his plans got disrupted following a Lap 39 restart when he suffered a cut tire. While a caution for Jack Harvey, who crashed on the run up to Turn 13 after also suffering a cut tire, prevented Newgarden’s issue from being compounded, it still put yet another obstacle in front of him and the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet team, as they had to go off strategy in hopes of regaining track position.

He eventually recovered to finish seventh, but he felt the car had much more in it if circumstances played out differently.

“We had a great Chevy package – it’s just sad we couldn’t take better advantage of it,” he lamented. “I felt we had really good power today from Chevrolet. The Hitachi car, overall, was pretty strong. We were just fighting all day to catch back up and we were on the wrong end on the fuel mileage and getting run into and cutting the tire didn’t help us. But I think if a couple of things would’ve gone differently, I really think a podium finish was in the cards for today.”

Meanwhile, as Newgarden and Power were able to finish in the top 10 after their issues, Simon Pagenaud languished in 13th. Starting 11th, Pagenaud simply didn’t catch the breaks he needed to use pit strategy to move forward, with an air gun issue during his first pit stop on lap 23 only making matters worse.

Simon Pagenaud was mysteriously a non-factor at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

For Pagenaud, Sunday’s was a race to forget.

“It was a hard-fought day. We had a tire gun problem on the first stop and I feel bad for the Menards crew. That’s a tough thing to happen and they did such a good job on the next two stops. Unfortunately, that put us back in the pack and we just couldn’t make up ground from there,” Pagenaud explained.

Team Penske will look to regroup ahead of next month’s Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway (April 7 on NBCSN).

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Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.