It’s hard to imagine how Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca could possibly have gone any better for Will Power.
He’d emphasized from the start of the weekend that his first priority for this weekend’s NTT IndyCar Series title-decider was to put the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet on pole. He succeeded, secured an additional point to pad his championship lead and moved clear of Mario Andretti for IndyCar’s all-time pole record. And that was against a backdrop of all four of his title rivals stepping on rakes and making their jobs tomorrow all the more difficult.
Power was the only driver among the five championship contenders to go out in the second group in the first segment and enjoyed a relatively uneventful run through the first two qualifying phases. When the Fast 6 rolled around, he clamped himself to Pato O’Ward’s rear wing on the out lap but then swung straight into the pits before completing a flyer; the No. 12 team having opted to warm the car up and then throw everything at a single run rather than making two runs like everyone else.
He remained stationary in his pit box waiting for a favorable gap and the rolled out with a bit under three minutes to go. The result: P1 at 1m11.6127s.
“[The record] didn’t even occur to me until they told me,” Power said. “ I was so focused on getting pole because it’s such a big day tomorrow. I can’t celebrate much because I need to focus on tomorrow. But it blows my mind that I’m there with Mario.”
Andretti himself made the trip down to the Penske pit box to congratulate the Australian, then had to chase the car down to the interview area where Power finally emerged from the cockpit, but was quick with his praise.
“Awesome,” said Andretti. “I know how much I loved qualifying, and I can see that he’s the same, trying to reach and trying to do the lap that you cannot repeat, and that’s what puts you on pole. Absolutely [I knew that Power claiming the record] was coming. It’s beautiful; it’s great for the series and the sport. Records are made to be broken, and it was with a good man.”
Power’s feat shouldn’t overshadow a superb performance from Callum Ilott in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevy, who shined on a day that got the better of several veterans to claim a spot on the front row, 0.0193s shy of Power’s time.
The afternoon was as consequential for the title fight as for the record books, and it was Power’s two closest rivals who had the worst afternoons. Josef Newgarden’s day went sideways very early on when he rode over the steel pyramid apex marker at the entry to the Corkscrew and pitched himself into a spin that left the No. 2 Penske car beached in the outside gravel trap. He tried to extricate himself only to snag his front wing against the outside of the rumble strip due to the steep gradient and leave his front wheels dangling in the air. Red flag.
“I just made a mistake,” said Newgarden, who will start 25th. “It’s a real shame. I think we have the fastest car in the field right here. It’s a real bummer for everybody. It’s not over, but it’s not ideal, what just happened here. It is what it is.”
The session was extended to allow each driver one flying lap, which gave Scott Dixon one shot at hauling himself from 11th into the top six and booking a spot in the next round. He succeeded, just – only to be bumped by Simon Pagenaud at the checker and relegated to 13th on the grid tomorrow.
“We went out on used blacks and took a little bit of time to get some speed out of it, and the No. 14 was backing us up as well,” Dixon said. “We put on the reds and the No. 14 was so slow on his out lap that we couldn’t get them up to temperature. Unfortunately we needed another lap, or half-lap. I think strategy was always going to be key for this race, so…[it’s a] very slippery, low-grip track, and that’s going to play into more cautions and the factor of flipping the strategy.”
So Newgarden and Dixon were out, but Marcus Ericsson and Scott McLaughlin were still in the game for the second segment. McLaughlin went to P1 with a set of sticker black tires five minutes before the end and heading into the pits for a set of reds. Before he had a chance to use them, Ericsson – who was also looking solid in provisional third — skittered into a spin at the Corkscrew, bringing out a local yellow while he gathered up the No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. His fastest lap was canceled, his next-fastest wasn’t enough to carry him into the Fast 6. He’ll line up 10th for the race.
“I was catching some traffic,” Ericsson explained. “We were a bit out of sync; we went for the early push, and it seemed like some other cars were doing a warm-up lap. I was trying to get a clear track, and you lose some focus and some downforce and just missed the corner. I think the biggest problem was that we got out of sync with everyone. The car was pretty good. The tires are extremely difficult to handle this weekend, so I think it’s going to be an interesting race tomorrow and there will be a lot of things happen, and we have saved some tires. We have options.”
McLaughlin’s undoing was less dramatic – he was one of countless drivers to drop a couple of wheels off at Turn 4, and lost enough time to allow others to leapfrog him into the top six. He’ll start from eighth.
“I was trying a bit hard,” he said. “We’ve missed the balance all weekend and unfortunately we just made a mistake there trying to find the limits and find the balance with this car. I think we’ve got something to play with tomorrow – we’ve got some tires up our sleeve, and we’re in a decent starting spot.”
Colton Herta’s hopes of continuing his Laguna Seca streak took a hit when he made a mistake that leaves him starting 18th, but teammate Alexander Rossi stepped up in his final race with Andretti Autosport to claim third on the grid, with fellow Andretti-ite Romain Grosjean lining up alongside him.
Alex Palou – who may or may not be preparing for his last start with Ganassi – qualified fifth, leaving David Malukas to round out the top six and keep his Rookie of the Year battle with Christian Lundgaard alive with another great performance in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Honda.
UP NEXT: Warmup, Sunday, 12pm.