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

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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.

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”