By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
An uncharacteristic moment unfolded at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday as Team Penske failed to have one of its four drivers advance into the Fast Nine shootout (Sunday at 1 p.m. on NBC) for the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
It’s the first time Penske has been shut out of the first three rows since 2002 as two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden qualified no better than 13th, while the other three drivers, all former Indy 500 champions, failed to crack the top-20.
Newgarden said that being the ninth man to qualify was certainly beneficial because that’s when a four-lap run was at its peak, something that became apparent as his No. 1 Shell V-Power NiTRO+ Chevrolet couldn’t improve on its second run later in the day.
“I think that’s pretty much what our speed of our car is. Could have eked out maybe just a touch more, but I think we were close to the limit. But it’s great to be here,” said Newgarden. “Look, I’m so pumped that we’re running the Indianapolis 500, I can’t say thanks enough to Roger and everybody at IMS and Indy Car for making this happen. I think we’re going to put on an amazing show next weekend and I think we’re going to have a good car to race with, with Shell and Team Chevy.”
Although Newgarden was rather content with his qualifying effort, the same can’t be said by his other teammates and among those down and out was a very disgruntled Will Power, who qualified after him.
Following a rather disappointing run that ended up being 22nd fastest, the 58-time INDYCAR pole sitter had all but given up of any chance of improving his starting slot to the point of reiterating the obvious.
“Not a chance. Not a chance. Probably one of the slowest cars out there by the look of it,” said Power. “Yeah. I don’t know, man. It was wide open the whole time. It just blows my mind. Every time I come here, I get so many poles at every other track and I will never have the fastest car here. Never. And I don’t know why. We ran less downforce than Josef and we’re slower. That’s it, man. I reckon that’s it. That’s all we got.”
Accepting defeat in that time period, Power shifted his focus on the 500-mile race next Sunday, hoping his No. 12 Verizon 5G Chevrolet is capable of being competitive.
“We’ll be probably pretty far down the order and focus on the race now. At least we can get back to race focus and practice tomorrow,” said Power. “I reckon this will be the furthest back I’ve started since my first race, I would say. So, it’s going to be a long day. You can win from anywhere here, so we’re going to work hard on the race car and have some fun on next weekend.”
Power ultimately didn’t give up and hit the 2.5-mile circuit once again with 18 minutes remaining, but his opening two laps were slower than his run earlier and by the time he completed his third lap, the No. 12 team waived him off. While Power reported that his car felt better, his 13th Indy 500 starting spot will be the worst since 2008 when he rolled off 23rd.
Further down the field are defending Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud and three-time winner Helio Castroneves, who’ll start 25th and 28th respectively.
During the last 90 minutes of qualifying, Castroneves urgently convinced his No. 3 “Yellow Submarine” Pennzoil crew to let him make another qualifying attempt. He would get his wish and while his speed slightly improved, he was still 28th following a save on the backstretch during his second lap.
Castroneves, who had started no worse than 19th back in 2017, said he gained a few takeaways from his second go around at the 2.5-mile circuit which proved to be his last. That’s because when the gun blasted at 4:50 p.m. ET (to indicate the session is over), Scott Dixon was making another qualifying run with Castroneves on the cue.
“I’m kind of surprised they’re saying we were going faster, but unfortunately I wasn’t expecting what the car is going to do. A few laps there, I had to readjust,” Castroneves on his qualifying run. “If we have time to go back again, I would love to because now I understand what I need to do with the car. It was a little bit surprising because we had such a different change from one another.
“I feel like Simon might improve because I think what we did work. Hopefully, we can do a little bit more.”
Following Castroneves was indeed Pagnenaud, who’d hoped to get out after his teammate, but a displeased series director Kyle Novak told Pagenaud to shut it down after failing to get his car going past the minute mark, and had to pull out of the cue.
Fortunately for the 36-year-old, it didn’t take long to get another chance as Charlie Kimball waived off his run where he reported his lack of confidence on his left rear tire.
Unfortunately, Pagneaud’s attempt was short lived after being dissatisfied with the rear end of his No. 22 Menards Chevy, citing that it felt weird after completing the opening lap, thus remaining in 25th.
He admitted it was just a test run, hoping cooler temperatures will lead to a better qualifying run. That opportunity never came into fruition as Pagenaud’s 25th spot is the worst of his Indy 500 career.
With no shot at an pole, the shift now focuses on the bigger prize and that’s a 19th Borg-Warner Trophy for Roger Penske, especially with it being his first year as owner of IMS.
Notably, despite missing out on the Fast Nine in 2002, Castroneves went on to win the race from the 13th starting spot. The drivers for Team Penske will have an opportunity to repeat history next Sunday, Aug. 23 (1 p.m. on NBC).