Josef Newgarden threw a new wrinkle into the NTT IndyCar Series championship decider by claiming pole position in a chaotic qualifying session at Long Beach that left both of his title rivals facing the prospect of starting tomorrow’s race from outside the first three rows.
Newgarden, who came into the weekend off the back of two disastrous qualifying runs at Portland and Laguna Seca, rocketed to the top with a 1m08.2241s that left him comfortably clear of Scott Dixon’s 1m08.4422s.
“I’m so happy,” said Newgarden, who would have been eliminated from the championship fight if Alex Palou had taken pole. “It’s been a bit demoralizing, (qualifying so badly over) the last couple of weekends; it’s just taken the life out of me a little bit. We’ve got a really good package here. We’ve accomplished out job today, now we’ve got to go out and do it tomorrow. We fought hard all year, we’ve had ups and downs, it’s very improbable that we’re going to win the championship, but our goal is to win the race. It’s very unlikely, but never say never.”
Dixon believed his shot at pole was derailed by MSR’s Helio Castroneves holding him up — a claim that Castroneves, who will start from third, dismissed. Behind him, Simon Pagenaud, Felix Rosenqvist and Romain Grosjean rounded out the top six.
But the Fast Six was the least dramatic part of the afternoon. Mechanical problems for Will Power in the final moments of the second round left the No. 12 Team Penske car stranded at Turn 9 and prompted a local yellow. Palou and main title rival Pato O’Ward were among those who slowed accordingly, but three other drivers — including O’Ward’s AMSP teammate Felix Rosenqvist appeared to improve their times after the yellow had come out. Several teams spent the break between the two rounds waving their arms at race director Kyle Novak — in the case of AMSP, protesting one of its own drivers in the hope of advancing the other — but the result stood.
“We should be in there,” said an unhappy O’Ward, who will start from eighth. “We were up on our last lap. I had eyes and saw yellow flags. Palou had to slow in front of me; I slowed up… IndyCar are never consistent with their calls. I don’t know if we had the speed for pole, but we definitely had the pace to get into the Fast Six.”
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Palou will start from 10th.
“It was not the best of the sessions for us, but the good thing is that we had the pace, and it’s good to see Scott up there,” said the Spaniard. “We’ll see what we can do tomorrow from the top 10. We know we have a good race car. We’ll try and overtake some guys tomorrow, and just focus on ourselves. If we do a good job tomorrow, we win the championship. We can’t focus on what the other cars are doing.”
While Power’s afternoon didn’t end as he’d hoped, he was fortunate to be out on the track for the second round in the first place after his car sustained heavy damage in an unlucky accident during the opening round. MSR’s Jack Harvey hit the wall hard at the exit of Turn 8; Power rounded the corner and found his windscreen filled with pink and black. He had no time to avoid the stricken No. 60 Honda, and trashed his left-rear corner and rear wing. The one bright spot was that Power was in first qualifying group, meaning Team Penske had an additional few minutes to scramble a repair, but even so, it still took a herculean effort to get the car back out in time.
Elsewhere, Colton Herta’s early-session dominance came to an end during the first qualifying round. He’d stayed out longer than the others on the harder compound black tires, and might have been trying to progress to the second round without having to lean on his supply of the reds. If that was the plan, it went out the window when he tagged the wall three minutes from the end, pitted for reds, but ran out of time to get them working. After topping the times in both practice sessions, he will start 14th.