Joe Skibinski / IndyCar

Team Penske uncharacteristically slow in Barber qualifying

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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.

Watch the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN or at NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports app

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Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

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“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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