INDYCAR championship contenders not happy with Iowa qualifications

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NEWTON, Iowa – Josef Newgarden had just qualified his No. 2 Chevrolet into the third starting position for Saturday night’s NTT IndyCar Series Iowa 300 and the Team Penske driver didn’t look happy. His main contender for the championship, Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport, qualified sixth fastest and he didn’t look happy, either.

Newgarden leads Rossi by just four points entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300. Both drivers expected to qualify higher on Friday afternoon during a one-hour qualification session held under very high temperatures with high humidity.

Another reason both drivers may have been a tad sour was the pole winner was Simon Pagenaud, the hard-charging Frenchman who won this year’s 103rd Indianapolis 500, the INDYCAR Grand Prix and last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Pagenaud is third in the standings, 39 points out of the lead.

Live coverage of the Iowa 300 begins tomorrow evening at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Newgarden is usually one of the more ebullient and talkative drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series but after Friday’s qualifications, he was unusually short in his responses.

“I think our car will be all right, so I’m excited to go racing,” Newgarden said in a deadpan tone of voice to NBC Sports.com. “The top five is tight to me, so it (the championship) could be anyone’s game right now.”

Rossi was only slightly more descriptive of his car and chances in Saturday night’s 300-laps race at the 0.875-mile Iowa Speedway short oval.

When asked what it was going to be like start from sixth place, Rossi’s response was blunt.

“(Crappy),” Rossi told NBC Sports.com “I don’t have anything that I’m super happy with right now and it’s going to be hotter tomorrow. We have to get our heads down and figure out how to get me more comfortable in the car.

“I think it was a good effort. That’s pretty much what I thought we had in the car, so we didn’t leave anything on the table. We just didn’t have anything for the top three cars. The last session Friday is very important to us and we need to have a good practice if we are going to have anything for the race.”

Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske won the pole with a two-lap average of 180.073 miles per hour in a Chevrolet. He was followed by his two Team Penske teammates, Will Power (179.598 mph) and Newgarden (179.449 mph), both in Chevrolets.

Rossi was sixth with a two-lap average of 176.057 mph in a Honda, just behind fourth-place Takuma Sato’s Honda and James Hinchcliffe’s Honda.

Later in the post-qualifying press conference, Pagenaud continued his “less is more” approach to answering questions.

When told that the pole winner had never won at Iowa, Pagenaud responded, “I’m not big into stats, so…”

What happened between Friday’s morning practice session and Friday afternoon’s qualifications?

“Conditions were similar, so I don’t think it changed much,” Newgarden said. “I just obviously we didn’t nail it, so we got to nail it tomorrow.”

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing at Barber

SPOTTER GUIDE: All 29 of this weekend’s paint schemes

IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”