Team Penske drivers were likely scratching their heads following Saturday’s qualifying for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
Slow in practice all weekend, not a single Penske driver made it to the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying – the first time since 2014 – with only Will Power qualifying in the top 10.
But the biggest surprise of the entire qualifying session was Josef Newgarden, who qualified a disappointing 16th after failing to advance to the second round.
Newgarden, who earned his first NTT IndyCar Series win at Barber in 2015, is looking to make it three wins in a row at the Alabama road course, having won back-to-back races in 2017 and 2018.
“We haven’t been quick right from the beginning, and [we’re] not 100% sure why” Newgarden told NBCSN. “We’re trying to figure it out and piece it together. It was closer than I thought it was, actually. I put a decent lap together on reds but it was all I had. I just can’t get a lot of speed out of the car for whatever reason”.
Still, Newgarden refused to let the situation completely dampen his mood.
“We got a group here. We’ll find a way [up front],”Newgarden said. “Just unfortunate when you need to do that.”
For Will Power, seventh is his worst qualifying result at Barber since 2012.
“I’m still not quite good enough,” Power told NBCSN. “I think it’s kinda tough this weekend with the sessions so short to make big changes, so we’ll see. We’ll have a good think about it before the race and see what we can come up with.”
For the third straight race, Simon Pagenaud qualified towards the back of the pack and will start 14th on Sunday. The 2016 IndyCar champ has yet to qualify higher than 13th so far this season.
Despite the poor qualifying results, don’t expect Team Penske drivers to remain where they qualified. All three drivers will attempt to do whatever it takes to navigate towards the front of the pack.
In his debut on a 450 Kawasaki, Adam Cianciarulo held off teammate Eli Tomac in a hotly contested final Main to win the Monster Energy Cup at Sam Boyd Stadium: One race; one win.
“My first thought was, ‘what I life I get to live,’ ” Cianciarulo told NBCSN after the race. “That whole race I knew (Eli) was behind me. We had a gap and I knew it was going to come down to the Joker Lane.”
For Cianciarulo, it was all about managing pressure. He earned the holeshot in the first and final Mains. In the first race, he lost his bike and the lead under the bridge. In the final Main, he withstood a fierce charge for 10 laps from one of the best riders ever in Supercross.
Tomac stalked Cianciarulo for eight laps. At one point, he made the pass, but Cianciarulo expertly executed a crossover move and retook the point in the same corner. Tomac knew he was going to have to change things up if he wanted to make a pass for the lead and the overall win.
“Going into the Joker, I couldn’t really ever make the pass stick, so I thought let me get in this thing a lap early and see if I can make the speed up on the track,” Tomac said after the race.
He had a reason to believe it would turn out in his favor because he used the tactic in the second Main and made up four spots on the track – advancing from seventh to fourth.
“Just the opportunity to race with Eli,” Cianciarulo continued from Victory Lane. “You know, he’s accomplished so much and just to be out there on the track with him. I’m just stoked to be out there with him.”
Cianciarulo would have been forgiven if he thought Las Vegas owed him something. Entering the Supercross season finale this year, he only needed a clean finish to win the 250 West championship. He crashed and handed the win over to Dylan Ferrandis, but instead of allowing that to frustrate him, Cianciarulo used it as motivation.
“(Winning this race) is a little bit of redemption, but to be honest with you I look at (the accident in) Vegas now after winning the outdoor motocross championship as something that helped me get there,” Cianciarulo said. “It’s helped me grow.”
With his overall win, Cianciarulo pocketed a $100,000 check. The payday could have been $1 million if any rider had been able to win all three Mains. Instead, three Mains featured three different riders. Tomac won the first Main, Malcolm Stewart the second, and Cianciarulo the third.
Tomac stormed to the lead in the first Main and was slicing through the field in Main 2 before he flipped his bike on a bad landing. He fell from challenging for the lead to 10th. Ten laps does not allow a lot of time to make up for a mistake, but Tomac was able to make up significant time by taking the Joker Lane one lap before Cianciarulo and Stewart.
Stewart would win the second Main, completing a comeback nine months in the making. Early in the Supercross season, he crashed hard in Phoenix and broke his femur.
“I’ve been waiting nine months for all this; I’m just having fun out there.” Stewart said at the end of Main 2. “We’ve got another race to go and hopefully we’re on the top step, but if not, we’re already making dreams come true. I’ve already marked things off my checklist. It was just to win a Main Event.”
Entering the final Main Cianciarulo, Tomac, and Stewart were in a dead heat in regard to points. Cianciarulo finished second in the first two Mains, Tomac had a 1-3 with Stewart at a 3-1. The battle would be a “winner takes all” scenario.
How they finished in the final Main determined the overall result with Stewart finishing third in the race and overall standings.
Vince Friese had the ride of his life. With a 4-5-5, he finished fourth.
Friese was also trying to erase an injury-plagued season.
“I had a good (2019) season going,” Friese said. “I don’t think I got to show everything I had. It was frustrating getting hurt just a few races in and five months off the motorcycle is not fun, so I was hungry tonight.”
The World Champion Tim Gajser scored a 7-4-4 and rounded out the top five.
Dean Wilson crashed hard in the last lap of practice. He was transported to the hospital with a leg injury.
Evan Ferry won the Supermini division on the strength of winning both Mains. Gavin Towers and Myles Gilmore rounded out the top three.
In 250 Futures, Jett Lawrence won both Mains and the overall. Jalek Swoll and Brock Papi rounded out the top three.