Sebastien Bourdais on pole for IndyCar race in Phoenix

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Sebastien Bourdais is keeping the momentum going from winning the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening race last month at St. Petersburg.

Driving the last car to take a run, Bourdais stole the No. 1 qualifying spot from defending race winner Simon Pagenaud in the final minute Friday for Saturday night’s Desert Diamond Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway.

Bourdais and his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Honda roared past Pagenaud to grab the top spot with a 188.539 mph effort.

“It’s high tension, high pressure, you don’t breathe very much, you’re just listening to the car to make sure you don’t overdo it,” Bourdais said of his run to NBCSN. “I think it’s a great achievement for the entire team. … It’s racing, man, you’re only as good as your ride, and those guys gave me a car.”

Team co-owner Jimmy Vasser, who earned his first IndyCar pole at ISM Raceway 25 years ago this week, was ecstatic at Bourdais’ run.

“Bourdais is a great champion,” Vasser said. “You get the car the way he wants it on any type of circuit. He’s getting more comfortable all the time on the ovals. It’s a big, long night tomorrow, but great job by the team and it’s just awesome. … It’s a long season but we’re certainly off to a good start.”

Pagenaud, meanwhile, was the only other driver above 187 mph with a run of 188.148 mph. Pagenaud’s Team Penske teammate, Will Power, qualified third at 186.852 mph run.

Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016, will start Saturday’s race from the fourth position after a qualifying effort of 186.824 mph.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports claimed the fifth and sixth spots, respectively. James Hinchcliffe ran 185.741 mph to take fifth.

Teammate and rookie Robert Wickens, who was outstanding in his series debut last month at St. Petersburg, was sixth-fastest at 185.362 mph, in what was the first oval track qualifying effort in his career.

Team Penske’s third driver, defending series champion Josef Newgarden, clocked a qualifying run of 185.279 mph, good for seventh on the grid.

Rounding out the top 10 was No. 8 qualifier Ryan Hunter-Reay (184.706 mph), Tony Kanaan (184.595), and rookie Pietro Fittipaldi – nephew of legendary driver Emerson Fittipaldi – at 184.548.

One of the biggest disappointing runs had to be that of former champion Scott Dixon, who qualified 17th in the 23-driver field at 181.804 mph.

There is one more on-track session tonight, with practice slated from 11 p.m. to Midnight ET.

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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”