Penske recaptures its qualifying mojo

Image by Abbott/LAT

Penske recaptures its qualifying mojo

A week ago, Team Penske missed the Fast Six at Alabama. To be honest, they missed the setup as well. Will Power started seventh, Simon Pagenaud 14th and Josef Newgarden 16th in one of the worst qualifying sessions of Roger Penske’s long history.

But what a difference as week makes.

On Saturday, the Penske trio claimed half of the top six starting spots and stamped themselves as definite contenders for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“It was great to get all three of us in considering how tight it’s been in practice,” said Power, who wound up third fastest in his Verizon Chevy. “My aim was just to get in the top six, because I felt like I was struggling all week. Our team worked well together, and it’s good to be P3.”

Newgarden, the points leader who charged to fourth place at Barber Motorsports Park in a drive that could bode well for a second IndyCar title, lines up fifth after getting a break and making it into the Fast Six after Felix Rosenqvist crashed and lost his two fastest laps for causing a red flag.

“I’ve got a much better vantage point to start this thing compared to Barber, and the Fast Six makes a world of difference,” said the 2017 champion. “I wish we had a little more today and I thought our car was great, but we were just a little shy in performance.”

Newgarden captured the season opener at St. Pete and Power scored a pair of pole positions, but it’s been a rough start to 2019 for Pagenaud. After qualifying 13-22-14 in the opening three races, the 2016 IndyCar champion responded with the fifth-best lap. After he was welcomed back to the front on NBCSN, the Frenchman said with a smile: “I didn’t go anywhere. I’m still here.”

It’s been a rough road since he nearly snared a second-straight championship in 2017. Winless last year, the Frenchman has maintained a great attitude and rolled with the punches.

“I don’t think anyone outside the car can understand how competitive it is right now so it’s very rewarding when you have a good day,” he said. “As a driver you feel fully content when you’ve had a good day, and you’re happy, it’s that simple. But I’m a champion and I haven’t lost any confidence in myself, or my team. We’ve had a little bad luck this season in qualifying, but we’ve been good all weekend, and I’ve got a good car for tomorrow.

“We won from fourth in ’16, so why not fifth?”

Newgarden and Power were strong at St. Pete and the team struggled on the road course at Barber but Team Penske flexed its muscles again Saturday on a temporary street circuit.

“It’s pretty cool to see how hard Team Penske has been working on our street course setup,” said Pagenaud. “As we showed today we’ve made great improvement and it’s been fun driving this car all weekend. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s race.”