Power leads Penske qualifying sweep at St. Pete

Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

Power leads Penske qualifying sweep at St. Pete


Power leads Penske qualifying sweep at St. Pete


Will Power claimed his 55th career IndyCar pole position — and eighth just at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg — in spectacular  fashion, besting Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden by just 0.0976s in the final seconds of the Firestone Fast 6, while Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist started his IndyCar career by edging his series champion teammate Scott Dixon for third.

“I was really surprised when [Roger Penske] said ‘P1’, because we had used tires, but it was a really neat lap,” Power said. “We’ve slowly climbed up all weekend — P10 in the first two sessions; P5 in the third. Then to get pole for the first race of the season is awesome.”

His pole represented a strong turnaround, not just for this weekend, but from a 2018 showing on street courses that the Australian admitted hadn’t been up to his own lofty expectations.

“We had a really good look at our street course performance because it was not good enough last year,” he said. “We’ve definitely come back with a nicer car to drive, much more in the window, so great work by the whole team.”

Newgarden shared his teammate’s enthusiasm about their turnaround from practice, although he felt he left a little on the table.

“It was kind of a medium start. We weren’t bad — in the top 10 — but we weren’t crazy stellar,” he related. “But we really found our footing this morning and the car’s really good. Everyone executed, for sure. I’m only disappointed in myself — I just didn’t put together the best lap there when it really counted. But a 1-2, you can’t be disappointed.”

Rosenqvist similarly felt relieved to have come out of the eventful session so strongly. “It didn’t come easy, the whole session,” said the Swedish rookie. “The NTT Data No. 10 really came alive in the last session — especially on the Firestone reds. It was a lot of hard work but I think we can be up there.”

Hunter-Reay was overshadowed in the final shootout. Image by Joe Skibinski/IndyCar.

One who most observers had expected to be “up there” was Ryan Hunter-Reay, who’d led through much of practice and qualifying, only to end up fifth when it counted.

“We just struggled on reds,” mused the Andretti Autosport driver. “We had the fastest lap in qualifying, just did it in the wrong session! It’s unfortunate. The car was a rocket on new reds, but as soon as we got on the used reds, we really struggled with it. We were trying to figure out what our tire strategy should be, and we just missed it a little bit there at the end.”

Qualifying got off to a rather messy start as a couple of red flags truncated the first group session and left a number of drivers without a shot.

Marco Andretti triggered the first one after stopping at the exit of pit lane with a fuel pick-up issue, while shortly after the restart, Santino Ferrucci found the tire barriers at Turn 13, bringing the scheduled 10-minute session to an early end and promoting Charlie Kimball, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist, Ben Hanley and Josef Newgarden into the Fast 12.

Two-time defending race champ Sebastien Bourdais was among those left out, and he wasn’t happy about it.

“It was just a shame. I feel like we owe it to the fans, the teams and the sponsors to at least show something that is representative,” fumed Bourdais. “I guess the rules are there for a reason, but the rules do not have provision for something like that where you barely get any green flag running — just four minutes. We didn’t even post a single lap. I guess we should have just gone right away, but that’s easy to say now.”

The second group learned that lesson, all 12 cars piling up fast times from the outset. Harding Steinbrenner Racing rookie Colton Herta showed that the impressive form he demonstrated in pre-season testing was no fluke by shooting to the top on his first run and, after being momentarily demoted by Power, the rookie regained the top spot before Hunter-Reay nailed the fast time.

The biggest surprise of the session was Dixon who, lingering on the outside of the top six, indulged in a rare spin in Turn 8. He was able to resume without killing the session — or losing his fastest two laps, like the earlier red flag offenders did — but still wound up on the outside looking in for the Firestone Fast 6…until Takuma Sato was penalized for causing a local yellow that impeded another car and lost his quickest lap.

So Dixon — whose spin was judged not to have impeded anyone — joined Hunter-Reay, Herta, Graham Rahal, Power and Jack Harvey in advancing to the next session.

There, Hunter-Reay continued his strong form out of the gate, before he too was demoted by 18-year-old Herta. Dixon put his second chance to good effect by leaping to P1 with 2m30s to go, before Penske’s Power and Newgarden and the resurgent Hunter-Reay eclipsed the Ganassi driver.

All this action had pushed Herta outside the top six, but the rookie rebounded with another flyer in the final seconds to apparently punch his Fast 6 ticket with P3. However, Herta was then penalized for impeding Kimball in Turn 10 and lost his Fast 6 spot. Instead it was Ganassi’s Felix Rosenqvist who advanced into the pole shootout.

“I blocked him, simple as that,” Herta admitted. “I’m pretty mad but, rules are rules and we broke ’em, so it is what it is.”

Rosenqvist made the most of his golden ticket, taking the top spot in his first Fast 6 run. Newgarden bettered that by 0.314s with a minute and a half to go, only to have had Power pip him in the final moments.

Now, it’s on to the race — something the polesitter admits is on him to improve on his 2018 showing when he spun at the first turn while going wheel-to-wheel with Robert Wickens.

“It’s a long race, 110 laps, so you’ve got to be smart,” said Power. “I wasn’t smart last year, spun in the first corner and really put us on the back foot from the beginning. So I want to have a great start — and obviously being on pole really helps.”