Will Power keeps Team Penske’s hot streak rolling with pole position

2 Comments

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was the 55th pole position of Will Power’s IndyCar career, but the Team Penske driver still surprised himself in continuing car owner Roger Penske’s impressive run in auto racing.

In the closing seconds of qualifying Saturday for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (12:30 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN), Power knocked off teammate Josef Newgarden from the top qualifying spot.

“I was really surprised when they said, ‘P1,’ I said, ‘What?’ ” said Power, who has started on pole in eight of the past 10 races on the 1.8-mile street course. “But it was a really good lap.  Awesome job, awesome job. To get pole the first race of the season is awesome. Really great start.”

The 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner’s prowess on street and road courses is well documented, but this is his first street-course pole since St. Petersburg two years ago, after Team Penske’s strength on ovals last season didn’t translate on street and road circuits.

“Chevrolet has done a fantastic job with the engine,” Power said. “Our street course performance was not good enough last year. It’s great work from the whole team. We worked hard to get the result.”

Will Power turns a lap on the streets of St. Petersburg. (Karl Zemlin/IndyCar)

Power has two wins at St. Petersburg, most recently in 2014 when he won the championship, but his fortunes in the season opener have been less than stellar lately. In 2016, he wasn’t cleared to race at the track after a wreck in practice.

He crashed and finished 19th in 2017 after starting on pole and finished 10th last year after qualifying second.

“You have to remember it’s a long race: 110 laps,” Power said. “I wasn’t smart last year. Being on pole really helps. We’ll get through the first turn and try to win another race.”

Newgarden made it a 1-2 qualifying effort for Penske, which also has won eight of the past 15 races in NASCAR’s premier series. Ryan Blaney qualified on pole Friday for Sunday’s Cup race at ISM Raceway.

“I’m only disappointed in myself,” Newgarden said. “I didn’t put together the best lap when it counted. (With a) 1-2, we can’t be dissatisfied, but it’s hard to not be disappointed when you’re quick.”

Other drivers who advanced to the Fast Six were rookie Felix Rosenqvist, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi.

Dixon, who still is seeking his first victory at St. Pete, nearly failed to advance after spinning in the first round, but a penalty to Takuma Sato put Dixon back in pole contention. Rosenqvist, Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, also benefited from a penalty to Colton Herta (for impeding Charlie Kimball) that put him in the Fast Six.

Some big names were knocked out early in the session, particularly two in Group 1 that was slowed by two red flags.

With limited time to post a fast lap, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was seventh and just missed advancing.

“What can I do?” Pagenaud, who is coming off a winless 2018, told NBCSN with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot of positives out of this weekend. I’ve worked really hard this winter for this moment. It’s disappointing. But I’m in a good space. We have a good race car and tomorrow we’ll be strong.”

Sebastien Bourdais, the two-time defending winner of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, also will start from near the rear of the field, but at least it’s a familiar feeling. The Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan driver won on this circuit from the 21st starting position in ’17 and 14th last year.

“It’s going to be our only way of doing it,” Bourdais told NBCSN. “It’s just a shame. I feel we owe it to the fans and everybody to show something that is representative. The rules don’t provision something like that with barely any green-flag time. I feel really bad. I guess we should have gone right away. But we have plenty of sticker tires, red and black, for the race.”

Click here for the full results from Saturday’s IndyCar qualifying session.

View from the pits: Reporters’ picks for the 103rd Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR / Jason Porter
Leave a comment

It’s Race Day in Indianapolis, and for the first time, the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Time will tell what impact Mother Nature has on today’s 103rd Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But no matter what, prerace coverage begins today on NBCSN at 9 a.m. ET, then transitions over to NBC at 11 a.m. ET.

All month long, the INDYCAR on NBC pit reporters have been bringing you the latest breaking news and stories for the Brickyard. Now, Kevin Lee, Kelli Stavast and Marty Snider share their insights from pit road. Read on …

KEVIN LEE

Throughout the last two weeks, one common theme has been, “Don’t crash.” There were five crashes, and four of those teams/drivers ended up in the Last Row Shootout. Two of the three bumped (Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso) were in backup cars following heavy impacts.

Several drivers have consistently been among the strongest. Simon Pagenaud (pictured, left) not only starts on pole but has been strong in race trim as well. All three Ed Carpenter Racing cars are fast and appear good in traffic. Alexander Rossi looks like he can put his car wherever he wants, and Scott Dixon has five championships and 44 IndyCar wins, so he must be watched.

In order, my picks for most likely to drink the milk are Pagenaud, Rossi, Ed Carpenter, Will Power and Dixon.

KELLI STAVAST

A week ago, no one could have predicted that two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing would be bumped from the Indy 500 by a single-car, part-time effort of Juncos Racing and its driver, Kyle Kaiser (pictured, right).  But it happened, and Kaiser now occupies the 33rd and final spot in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

So what next?  I spoke with Kyle five days after the dramatic qualifying effort, and he told me he has never been happier to finish last and that he is still “buzzing” from that experience—an energy he hopes to carry straight through to the race.  He also told me that the response from fans has been positive with people stopping him in public (including at Chipotle) to hug him and congratulate him on making the Big Show.

But reality might have set in for the Californian who now lives in Indy.  During Carb Day’s final practice, the team struggled to get a good handling car for Kyle, who described the day as “challenging.”  But Kaiser also acknowledged that the team made some progress throughout the practice and at the very least collected some data that might help for the 500-miler on Sunday.

Whether he finishes 1st or 31st on Sunday, Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will have plenty of fond memories to carry with them from the 103rd Indy 500.

MARTY SNIDER

First, we cannot wait to bring you guys the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. It’s an honor for our entire group to broadcast such an amazing event.

So what do we expect? I have no idea, to be honest. The weather will be a huge factor today. It might be a race to halfway if rain is forecast.  If it’s cooler (mid 70’s ambient, which it looks like it’s going to be), Alexander Rossi (pictured, left) was unstoppable in those conditions last Monday.

But Rossi was very unhappy with his car on Carb Day. For that matter, most teams were. But Rob Edwards of Andretti Autosport explained a few things to Rossi about all of the experimenting they were doing in final practice, and I think that team is in a much better frame of mind heading into the race.

I find it interesting that Simon Pagenaud’s team scuffed in literally every set of tires they will use for today’s race. The No. 22 camp is convinced (and they’re not wrong) that one of the keys to Will Power’s 2018 win was his ability to gain time on out laps after pit stops. Scuffing in tires helps that out lap time. It also allows teams to do a balance check on tires. Good thing they did: Kyle Moyer of Team Penske found two sets that had vibrations, which would have been bad in the race.

Bottom line, I haven’t seen anyone really stand out and show me they can beat Alexander Rossi yet. So I’m going with Rossi to win his second Indy 500.

Enjoy the show friends. It’s going to be a fantastic race!