Penske Brings Major Firepower To St. Pete Street Fight

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 13 2016
Team Penske's Will Power will start from the pole in St. Petersburg on Sunday.

Team Penske’s Will Power will start from the pole in St. Petersburg on Sunday.

Scott Dixon knows his road to victory in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and a possible fifth Verizon IndyCar Series championship, runs directly through 50 years of open-wheel history.

“Probably beating a Penske car, I think,” said Dixon, lead driver for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “They’re pretty strong here.”

Here, on the Streets of St. Pete, there and everywhere on the series’ 16-race schedule. Team Penske’s historic  50th anniversary season began with a record-setting flourish Saturday afternoon when Will Power led a sweep of the top four qualifying positions for Sunday’s 2016 season-opener.

Battling a stomach virus, Power broke the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg track record in each of the first two segments of knockout qualifying and then turned the best lap in the Firestone Fast Six to collect the Verizon P1 Award. His sixth St. Pete pole placed Power on-point for the 110-lapper on the 1.8-mile/14-turn temporary street circuit, an event that will be televised live beginning at 12:30 p.m. (EDT) on ABC.

Power, who set the track record of 1-minute, 0.6509-seconds/106.841 mph in 2015 qualifying, toppled the mark in the first segment Saturday with a lap of 1:00.5678-seconds in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. He advanced to the Firestone Fast Six with another record-setting lap of 1:00.0658-seconds/107.882 mph using a new set of Firestone alternate tires.

While he didn’t match that effort in the final segment, Power’s lap of 1:00.2450-seconds/107.561 mph was nearly two-tenths better than anyone else in the Firestone Fast Six and easily good enough to secure the 43rd pole of his career, fifth on the all-time Indy car list. It also led a Team Penske sweep of the first four St. Pete starting positions for the second straight year.

“What a great run today for the Verizon Chevy team,” said Power, who won the St. Pete race in 2010 and 2014. “It’s an awesome feeling to be able to put the new-look Verizon car on-pole again here at St. Pete.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been feeling pretty ill all day. It was a struggle to get through qualifying, honestly, but we were able to do it and after the Verizon P1 Award presentation I just started feeling a lot worse. The car was great today and a big credit to the guys for doing a terrific job in qualifying. I’ll try to get some good rest tonight and come back ready to race on Sunday.”

The rest did not help as Power was replaced by Oriol Servia on Sunday.

Simon Pagenaud, driver of the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet, will start second following a lap of 1:00.4421-seconds/107.210 mph. Three-time St. Pete winner Helio Castroneves qualified third in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet at 1:00.4995-seconds/107.108 mph with defending race-winner Juan Pablo Montoya fourth in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet at 1:00.5312-seconds/107.052 mph.

“Great effort for the whole organization,” Castroneves said. “To have 1-2-3-4 again, it shows we’re really working together as a team. We want to win as a team and we’re going to keep pushing. Great effort for Team Penske.”

Dixon, the four-time/reigning series champ, was the top non-Penske qualifier in fifth with a lap of 1:00.5395-seconds/107.038 mph in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.  “Good to see Chevy (sweep) the top five. Sad to see the first four being Penskes,” Dixon deadpanned. “That’s the way it is.”

Dixon begins the season with 38 career victories, one short of tying Al Unser for fourth-place on the all-time open-wheel list. The native of New Zealand has won races in 11 consecutive seasons and finished among the top-three in the standings in nine consecutive years.

Dixon’s victory in the 2015 season-ender at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway was the tiebreaker with Penske’s Montoya, as both finished with 556 points. Dixon won three races last season to JPM’s two, including this event and the 99th edition of the Indianapolis 500.

But Dixon, who is beginning his 15th consecutive season with Ganassi’s juggernaut, admitted the bumpy St. Pete layout continues to frustrate.

“This track typically for us has been a bit of a bother,” said Dixon, who scored his previous championships  for Ganassi in 2003, 2008 and 2013.“Qual 1, the track was really dirty. Might have been those trucks or something (making repairs to the surface). There was crap everywhere. Definitely slippery for the first few laps, especially on the blacks.

“Each lap just got better and better as the track got cleaner and cars ran through. Messed up a little bit on the last qual. Probably a little too cautious into Turn 1, into 10, a little bit into 13. All those would have given us a 10th or a 10th and-a-half (second). At least we made some big improvements over last year’s car. I know we’re going to race well, so hopefully we’ll have a good strategy to gain a few spots and make it to the podium.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, led the rival engine/aero kit camp in sixth at 1:00.8803-seconds/106.438 mph. “It’s been very tough for us, to tell you the truth,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion. “But we pulled it together, found some speed in qualifying. It’s tough to be happy with sixth, but we’re slowly talking ourselves into it. We salvaged something today.”

Graham Rahal, who finished a career-best fourth in points last season, qualified seventh at 1:00.5893-seconds/106.950 mph in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“I left it all out there,” said Rahal, who won two races and posted eight top-five results in 2015. “I didn’t have anything else. We’ve been up-front all weekend and have been close but unfortunately we just didn’t have quite enough there. These boys continue to work hard all weekend and ultimately we race better than we qualify so for us to start seventh, I think we can have a good race.

“We’ve been competitive, but I think we’re all struggling to find a balance. The Firestone tire we brought here is maybe a little bit different than last year’s compound so it’s been difficult to get everything how we want it setup-wise, but we like the challenge and my guys have responded really well. We have to turn our eyes toward the race now and I think we’ll be pretty strong. Overall we wanted to be the top Honda but we came up three-hundredths-of-a-second short.”

Twenty-two cars qualified for the race, 12 using Honda engines/aero kits and 10 with the Chevrolet package. Among the series newcomers, Californian Alexander Rossi qualified 19th for his first IndyCar Series start at 1:01.5794-seconds/105.230 mph. Rossi, who made five starts in Formula One for Manor Racing last season, was signed as a fourth Andretti Autosport driver in conjunction with Bryan Herta Autosport late last month. On Wednesday, Rossi signed with Manor as its F1 test/reserve driver.

“Based on Friday afternoon (practice), we were expecting quite a bit more today,” said Rossi, driver of the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda. “We had a bit of an issue this morning with braking that we weren’t able to resolve this afternoon. That is a little disappointing but it’s the way it goes sometimes.

“I think that we, as a group of four cars, need to put our heads together tonight and figure out what the best solution is. We all know Indy car racing is very different on Sunday than it is on Saturday, so we’ll have to make sure we put our best foot forward for tomorrow.”

A 30-minute warm-up session at 9 a.m. (EDT) Sunday will precede the race. The warm-up will stream live on racecontrol.indycar.com. In addition to ABC, the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network will air the race on network affiliates, Sirius 212, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile App.

Visiting the Victory Circle Monument at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has become nearly an annual tradition for team-owner Roger Penske. Juan Pablo Montoya delivered the seventh Team Penske win on the Streets of St. Pete in 2015, so he and Penske attended a ceremony Saturday morning to affix Montoya’s name to the Wall of Winners.

Montoya joined Helio Castroneves (2006, 2007, 2012), Ryan Briscoe (2009) and Will Power (2010, 2014) as Penske drivers to win on the 1.8-mile/14-turn temporary street circuit _ all in the last 10 years.

“It’s an honor to see all of these plaques representing wins by so many of our drivers,” Penske said. “It’s a great team effort. Certainly this is a place where we have had a lot of success and we’re hoping we can continue this weekend.”

Montoya saw his name placed alongside the other Penske drivers, as well as past winners Dan Wheldon (2005), Graham Rahal (2008) and James Hinchcliffe (2013). Sunday’s race is the 13th edition of an event dating to 2003, when Paul Tracy won the Champ Car-sanctioned race.

“You don’t realize little things like (the wall of champions) go a long way for the future and it’s cool,” said Montoya, driver of the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “Now we’ve got to go back and focus on what we do. This year you want to keep it up and do the best you can. It doesn’t mean you’re going to go out there and win every race, but you still want to. We’re going to try.”

Qualifying Saturday for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.8-mile St Petersburg street circuit, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1.  (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:00.2450 (107.561)
2.  (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:00.4421 (107.210)
3.  (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:00.4995 (107.108)
4.  (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 01:00.5312 (107.052)
5.  (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 01:00.5395 (107.038)
6.  (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:00.8803 (106.438)
7.  (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:00.5893 (106.950)
8.  (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 01:00.6711 (106.805)
9.  (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:00.6724 (106.803)
10.  (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 01:00.7188 (106.721)
11.  (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:00.9745 (106.274)
12.  (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:01.0571 (106.130)
13.  (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 01:01.1856 (105.907)
14.  (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 01:01.0433 (106.154)
15.  (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:01.2417 (105.810)
16.  (19) Luca Filippi, Honda, 01:01.1699 (105.934)
17.  (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 01:01.5372 (105.302)
18.  (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 01:01.2934 (105.721)
19.  (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:01.5794 (105.230)
20.  (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 01:01.3414 (105.638)
21.  (18) Conor Daly, Honda, 01:01.9385 (104.620)
22.  (16) Spencer Pigot, Honda, 01:01.3881 (105.558)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 13 2016
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