INDIANAPOLIS – It’s been 26 years since a Roger Penske car missed the Indianapolis 500 at one of the legendary organization’s lowest points. Penske now owns the pitch, but his team is fighting for a spot on the field in amazing ways.
Will Power, one of the greatest qualifiers in IndyCar history, failed to secure his place in the 33-car field on Saturday’s first qualifying day. The 2018 Indy 500 winner is one of five drivers who will fight for the last three places in the field on the Sunday after qualifying.
Power’s struggles were the worst of any Team Penske group that stayed behind the competition all week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“We’re slow,” said team president Tim Cindric. “If we only knew [why]We wouldn’t be slow. We’re working on it.”
Neither of the four Penske entries were as impressive, and the battle for speed passed to Simona De Silvestro, who returned to Indy for the first time since 2015 with a women-led racing team supported by Penske in its pursuit of diversity.
De Silvestro only beat the clock by eight seconds for one final qualifying attempt, but it wasn’t enough to get them into the top 30.
“When I saw them go by, I could tell by the sound,” said team owner Beth Paretta. “I knew she didn’t have it on the first round.”
Power and De Silvestro will face Charlie Kimball, Sage Karam and rookie RC Enerson in the back row on Sunday. Two drivers will miss the race, and there are two Penske cars on the shooting range for the first time since 1995 when Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi missed the race.
“You have to be a scientist to solve this problem,” said Power, who with 62 Poles only leaves Mario Andretti’s record of 67 Poles on the career list.
Power had qualified in the top three rows of the Indianapolis 500 for 11 of the past 12 years.
“We did our best. I think if we just do a conservative run tomorrow we should be fine,” said Power. “But if something goes wrong, you’re out.”
No one expected a fight with Team Penske, but it was immediately clear on Saturday that the Chevrolet-backed powerhouse had nothing for most of the field. But it wasn’t a Chevrolet problem, even though Honda took seven spots in the Fast Nine.
“This place is weird. You see that every year someone who you think should be really fast isn’t fast,” said Colton Herta, who was second fastest that day. “Sure the Penske thing is weird.”
Scott McLaughlin, the IndyCar rookie who made his Indianapolis 500 debut, was the fastest of the Penske drivers in 17th place. Josef Newgarden was 21st and Simon Pagenaud was 26th.
De Silvestro said she was “super happy” with the performance of the No. 16 Chevrolet in real life – until the series officials stepped up the power to increase the speed. The change upset the balance of the car and the speed has lagged.
“It’s really strange. Maybe we’ve changed too much,” said de Silvestro. “I think I’ll be spending the night watching a lot of video and going through a lot of data. We have an hour to get it on the show and we need a clean run.”
Poles and the first three rows for the race on May 30th will be determined on Sunday, with the Chip Ganassi Racing quartet ahead of the game. Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon set the fastest average of four laps in first qualifying, and no one knocked him off the front for the next six hours.
Dixon said he was shaking in the team van when he tried to put on his socks.
“It’s a big deal, right? You coast out, the first time you go 240 mph at Turn 1, you hope you get out the other side in one piece,” Dixon said. “T.K. [Tony Kanaan] and I actually got changed before we got to qualifying and he says, “Hey man, are you still nervous?” I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m really nervous.’ “
Dixon and Herta were followed by Kanaan, Ed Carpenter and Rinus VeeKay, the 20-year-old Ed Carpenter Racing driver who took his first career IndyCar win on the IMS street circuit last week.
Carpenter and VeeKay are the only Chevrolet drivers in the Fast Nine.
“I think we have as good a chance of winning pole as any of these guys. I’ve been in that position enough times,” said Carpenter, three-time Indy 500 pole winner. “That’s the nice thing about qualifying here. You have to do four laps. After we’ve done all four laps, we’ll find out who is the best. We have everything we need to fight for it.”
The day was dominated by Honda, and at one point Dixon said the engine maker had chased all nine spots into the Fast Nine. Helio Castroneves finished sixth for Meyer Shank Racing, followed by Alex Palou from Ganassi, Ryan Hunter-Reay from Andretti and Marcus Ericsson in the last Ganassi entry.
“To have all four [Ganassi] Cars in the Fast Nine are pretty massive, especially given the level of competition we have these days, “said Dixon.” Obviously a big thank you to Honda for delivering the performance they have. “
However, Palou was devastated after falling during a late afternoon qualification attempt. Worried about being knocked by the Fast Nine, he was trying to improve his time in the heat against the better judgment of his crew.
“I pushed the team. The team was about to go out with the weather, so I pushed them like, ‘Hey guys, we have a fast car, we can go,'” said Palou. “So I feel a little stupid because I didn’t listen to the team and then I’m really sorry they did so much work.”
The car could be fixed and Palou doesn’t need a backup for Sunday.
Marco Andretti, last year’s pole sitter, complained about his slow car all week. At first it looked so bleak that the third generation racing driver feared he might not qualify.
He eventually moved up to 25th place with a stronger run. Andretti has retired from full-time racing this season but is back to his 16,500 start, the only race on his calendar.