By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, California – Team Penske’s trio of Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power got redemption by making it back into the Fast Six during Saturday’s qualifying session to determine the starting lineup for Sunday’s 45th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The positive outing comes following a catastrophic qualifying performance at the last round in Barber Motorsports Park, where none of them managed to make it into the final round.
Power set a time of 1:06.8748, which was 0.3937 seconds slower than pole sitter and defending Long Beach winner Alexander Rossi. The starting position was key for Power, who had something to prove after being 10th fastest in Saturday morning’s final practice, the slowest out of the Penske trio.
“I was actually concerned,” said Power. “I was going to qualifying, just because it’s so tight. I knew that if we got everything right, I’d be close. Running like a tenth off, ended up being in sixth this morning, so that was my aim, just get to the Fast Six and I’ll be really happy. Whatever else you get from there will be a bonus. So yeah, really happy.”
By virtue of having a strong qualifying effort, Power commented that with how tight the competition has been all week, a mistake can be a detriment on trying to score the most amount of points possible as the last six editions at Long Beach have seen six different winners from six different teams.
“When you look at how tight the field is now, one little mistake or if your car is not quite in the window, you’re going to pay for it and you’re going to be probably back to 10th,” said Power.
Starting alongside Power in Row No. 2, Newgarden delivered a flyer at 1:06.9096, good enough for fourth. By making it back into the Fast Six, it brought tremendous hope for the NTT IndyCar Series points leader that tomorrow’s race will go in his favor as good track position matters at the 1.96-mile street course, more than most circuits on the 17-race calendar.
It’s a much better starting position for sure. The Fast Six is great for the race,” said Newgarden. “I think we’ll have a much better vantage point to the start of this thing compared to Barber. It’s hard to make something happen at 16th, but up in the top six it makes a world of difference, so excited about that. Wish we had a little more today honestly. I thought our car was great.
“My engineer Gavin (Ward) did a good job, the team did a good job. Wasn’t much missing from what I could feel. The car felt really good. We were just a little shy in performance, and we’ll chip away at it, figure out where that’s at, but I thought it was a solid run, and like you said, a great starting position, so we’ve got to be happy with that.”
Not only Ward’s involvement is paying dividends, Newgarden commented that during the off-season, they’ve worked tremendously hard on making Team Penske competitive on the street courses, and it has shown compared to their road course cars.
“I think our street course cars have been good. We were solid at St. Pete so I think that’s what you’re seeing here,” said Newgarden. “We did a lot of work on that in the off-season, so I think that’s what it speaks to mostly. Barber, I think we need a little time on our road course side. I think we’ll figure it out. I have no doubt, we’ve got the best in the business that work on our cars, so we’ll get there, we just need a little bit of time to figure out where we need to be better.
“So it is good to rally here, like you said. But we kind of expected that. I knew we’d have good cars here. I was really excited to get going. Now we’ll try and get through this weekend, try to get through the race, score some points and focus on where we can be stronger on the road courses in the future.”
A brash of confidence set Pagenaud’s mood after making it to the Fast Six for the first time since Gateway last August. The fifth-place starter, who clocked in at 1:07.1877, made it very clear that the 2016 champion isn’t going away anytime soon, and with a fast No. 22 DXC Technology Chevrolet, he had every reason to feel positive and backed up Newgarden’s comments on the street course setup being stout.
“I wasn’t gone. I’m still here. It’s all good,” said Pagenaud. “We worked pretty hard. It’s pretty cool to see how hard Team Penske has been working all winter trying to figure out that street course setup, and as we’ve shown today with all three cars being in the Fast Six, we’ve made a great improvement. I had a lot of fun driving the car all weekend. What a great track. It’s awesome to drive around here.:
One of the six different drivers who have won at Long Beach since 2013 is Pagenaud, who won in 2016. Pagenaud said the extra amount of laps on his Firestone tires may have prevented him from going faster, but is confident that he can end the Long Beach streak from the same starting position he won three years ago.
The car was great. We just had a few more laps on the tires just like Graham (Rahal) did due to being in group 2, but the car was fantastic, and it was super competitive. I’m pretty pleased being fifth on the grid. We won from fourth in ’16, so why not?”
All three Penske drivers will look to back up their qualifying results and fight it out for the win in the fourth race of the IndyCar calendar. The race will air on NBCSN live at 4:00 pm ET.