Team Penske hoping to avert another pair of Indy 500 qualifying failures Sunday

Team Penske qualifying failures
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images
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INDIANAPOLIS — A quarter-century after two of the most infamous Indy 500 qualifying failures in track history, Team Penske was on the precipice Saturday of another pair of stunning disappointments.

Penske driver Will Power, who won at the Brickyard in 2018 for Penske (the 17th of the powerhouse’s record 18 Indy 500 victories), and Simon De Silvestro, who drives for Penske-affiliated Paretta Autosport, are among the five drivers facing elimination after a dramatic finish to the first day of qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Power and De Silvestro will be battling Charlie Kimball, Sage Karam and RC Enerson for the final three slots in the 33-car grid during a 75-minute Last Row Shootout that will begin Sunday at 1:15 p.m. ET (NBCSN, Peacock Premium). That will be followed by Fast Nine pole qualifying at 3 p.m. (NBC, Peacock Premium).

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De Silvestro made two attempts in the last 40 minutes, starting the last run just seconds before the final gun sounded at 5:50 p.m. ET. But she was unable to bump out Dalton Kellett.

“Not the position you want to be in to be honest because it’s nerve-wracking and just trying to throw everything at it,” De Silvestro told NBC Sports pit reporter Kelli Stavast. “And the team as well, they changed the car completely over the two-hour break. Just seemed to struggle since we got to qualifying, finding the balance.”

Paretta Autosport, co-owned by longtime motorsports executive Beth Paretta, was formed this season as part of the Race for Equality & Change program announced by IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (both owned by Roger Penske) last July. Team Penske provides the team with staff, technical support and cars.

The team is comprised primarily of women in competition, operations, logistics, marketing/PR and the pit crew. De Silvestro is trying to make her first Indy 500 since 2015 and also put a female driver back in the field after the 2020 Indy 500 was the first without a woman in 20 years.

“We’ll take another go,” Paretta told NBC Sports pit reporter Marty Snider. “We’re going to keep fighting. If we gave up easily, we wouldn’t be here. Any of us. Nobody on this team has a give-up attitude. So we’ll try again, and we’ll do better.”

De Silvestro was trying to bump out Dalton Kellett, whose AJ Foyt Racing team played an interesting strategy by entering the “priority line,” which meant withdrawing its 30th-place time before making what turned out to be the penultimate qualifying attempt.

“I thought we were going to be the last car through, but Simona managed to squeak through and get a run,” Kellett said. “Obviously happy they had their chance to try to make the field. It’s exciting. It’s Bump Day. It’s what the fans love. Might not have been my favorite afternoon, but I’m sure everyone that came out today had a great time. And the Foyt guys gave me a good Chevy here and managed to get that last run in, so happy we made the field.”

Paretta Autosport driver Simona De Silvestro congratulates AJ Foyt Racing’s Dalton Kellett after the first day of qualifying for the 105th Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images).

Though he risked throwing away his spot with a crash or mechanical problem, Kellett occupied the track for a precious few minutes that helped run out the clock on other drivers wanting to make an attempt.

“I think with track temperatures coming down in shade, it looked like Power definitely would beat us and there were already four cars in the priority line,” team manager Larry Foyt said. “I didn’t make the call to put the car in the priority line. When I got there, it was already in that line. We thought we’d be the last car on the track and then the time wouldn’t have mattered, we’d be in. That was the hope.”

It didn’t work out quite perfectly as the team held its collective breath through De Silvestro’s laps. But it did help stymie Power, who is on the brink of joining Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi in the annals of qualifying ignominy.

After dominating in a 1994 Indy 500 victory (which was notable because of a crafty engine designed and built by Team Penske), Unser missed the ’95 race with Penske teammate Fittipaldi.

Power’s absence would be just as stunning. The Australian is one of the greatest qualifiers in NTT IndyCar Series history with 62 career pole positions, five short of Mario Andretti’s record. In 11 of the past 12 Indy 500s, Power has started in the first three rows.

But his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet simply lacked speed Saturday. Though he ran the same setup as rookie teammate Scott McLaughlin, who qualified 17th as the fastest Penske driver, Power was more than 1 mph slower despite being flat-out around the 2.5-mile oval.

“We gave it our best shot today,” Power told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “See if we can the Verizon 5G Chevy into the field tomorrow. I think if we just did a conservative run tomorrow, we should be OK.

“We did everything we could. I actually wish we got that last run, because we trimmed a bit more. Car felt very good on that last run. Certainly been an intense day. But we were fighting for something. We were fighting for 30th place. Boys did a good job, and I think we got the car good, just not quite up to speed. But we had the speed to be in the field if we did a good job tomorrow.”

Penske failed to place a car in the Fast Nine of Indy 500 qualifying for the second consecutive year.

After McLaughlin in 17th, two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden qualified 21st Saturday, and Simon Pagenaud (who won the 2019 Indy 500 from the pole position) was 26th fastest.