With Will Power on pole, Josef Newgarden starting sixth, and Simon Pagenaud primed for his familiar charge forward from 13th, the first World Wide Technology Raceway round held much promise for Team Penske as the field prepared to take the green flag.
Two hundred laps later, Power climbed out of his No. 12 Chevy with a 17th-place finish wondering how he led convincingly until Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward produced hellacious in and out laps to steal the lead following the first round of pit stops, and how he picked up a puncture that sent his day spiraling out of control. Two laps down at the checkered flag, Power led 61 laps in the opening stanza, but had nothing to show for it.
“That was not the race that Verizon, Chevrolet or my team deserved out there today,” Power said. “Our car was pretty good. (But) it was really hard to get close to guys and hard to pass when you got around them. A lot of us were just running the same speed. When it’s like that, it’s all about track position, and we lost ours with that caution. The race was over after that. Then we had a tire go down, and that was that. We just have to go back after it tomorrow at this point.”
Newgarden, a winner for Penske at WWTR in 2017, hovered between fifth and sixth, which demonstrated potential. Front-running pace, however, was not part of the equation, and, with the disruption caused by the brief caution period for rain in the area, the No. 1 Chevy was among the entries who paid the price for pitting shortly before the yellow emerged.
The price was a 12th-place finish.
“That was a frustrating race for the Hitachi team,” he said. “That caution came out totally at the wrong time, and we lost all of our track position and everything we’d worked for up to that point. The team had great stops, and we gained some positions on each of our first two pit stops. I think without the caution, we would have cycled out in the right position and been up there in the top three and got to battle it out. Instead, the caution ruined our day, and we were just fighting from behind.
“The Hitachi car was good, and Chevy brought some great power. Just nothing you can do when the caution falls. This just makes me more hungry to go out there tomorrow and win the race.”
Completing the hat trick of Team Penske misfortune, Pagenaud was clobbered from behind by AMSP’s Oliver Askew before the race got started, suffered electronic and handling maladies, and retired after 67 laps in 19th place. It’s a rare day when all three of Penske’s drivers finish outside the top 10, making Round 1 at WWTR such a strange occurrence for the defending series champions.
“Definitely not fun out there,” Pagenaud said. “I just feel sorry for Chevy and for Menards. I think we had a good car today and never even got a chance to really test it for tomorrow. The front of the pack slowed down; I don’t know if it was the accordion affect or whatever that was. We had to pull out of line, and all of a sudden someone hit us from behind. It is what it is, but it’s very unfortunate. You aren’t going to win the race in the first corner. We’ll be back tomorrow.”