By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
LONG BEACH, California – Make it three in a row for Helio Castroneves.
The 41-year-old Brazilian scored the Verizon P1 Award for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach with a scorching lap of 1 minute, 6.2254 seconds (106.980 mph), breaking the previous lap record held by him in 2015.
Driving the No. 3 Auto Club of Southern California for Team Penske, Castroneves, the 2002 winner of the event, was ecstatic to score the 48th pole of his career – fourth all-time behind Bobby Unser – and believes that this is the year he returns to Victory Lane.
“Yeah, it is (the year we win Long Beach),” Castroneves said. “So we’re looking forward to a great race tomorrow.
“I feel the AAA machine is running rails right now. Qualifying is one thing, the race is another.
“But I feel like we have a very good chance.”
Accompanying Castroneves on the front row is Scott Dixon, who led the Honda train that claimed six of the first seven spots.
“I think the car has been strong pretty much like St. Pete,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 NTT Date Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“As soon as we rolled off, we changed very few things. Unlike in the past, everything but the kitchen sink. It’s been nice to know what to expect every time you get in the car. I think that’s definitely helped the performance for us.
“Our biggest struggle has actually been the red tires. The car, every session we’ve been on blacks, even yesterday’s afternoon session, until we went to reds, we were very strong. Still just trying to figure out how to get the most out of the reds now.
“Qualifying second is a great spot to start. I think our cars are typically good on the long run. I think we have a great shot at competing for the race win tomorrow. Hopefully that’s the case with all four Ganassi cars.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal completed the remainder of the Firestone Fast Six, with Charlie Kimball leading the best of the rest in seventh.
The biggest moment of the session came when Simon Pagenaud’s two best times were disallowed for interfering with Team Penske teammate Castroneves after backing off of the pace in the final hairpin turn.
Pagenaud pointed blame on another teammate, Will Power, for backing up to him. However, Race Control looked at replays which showed a terrible exit for Power out of the final corner and didn’t agree with Pagenaud’s assessment of the incident.
The penalty pushed Pagenaud down the running order and now he will start Sunday from last on the grid.
“Yeah, I know exactly what happened,” Pagenaud told INDYCAR Radio Network. “The thing is, the first lap on reds, I was going but Will was really slow. I caught him and I basically had to abort the lap. I said on the radio that he was so slow that I had to abort.
“The three Penske cars were so close that we were boxed in. If I had started that second lap on Will’s gearbox, it wouldn’t be a good lap because of the turbulence, so essentially, it’s a real shame. I think we had a pole winning car but Will backed us up. I don’t understand why.
“So it is what it is, we start dead last and hopefully we can have the same luck (Sebastien) Bourdais had at St. Pete.”
Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach starting lineup can be seen here.