ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — IndyCar champion Will Power led a Team Penske sweep in qualifying for the long-awaited opener.
It was no surprise at all to see Power twice break the track record Saturday in qualifying, and lead teammates Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya in a Penske romp.
Montoya even hinted at what was to come after three Penske drivers paced the opening practice of the weekend. Asked if that early showing meant anything, he replied it was a surprise Penske wasn’t 1-2-3-4 on the leaderboard.
Now the only question lingering is if the Penske quartet can be stopped in Sunday’s race.
“There’s four of us, four really good drivers, great equipment, similar equipment,” said Pagenaud, who joined the team during the offseason as Penske expanded to four cars to accommodate the French driver.
“It’s easy to look at the data and improve yourself personally. It just makes you stronger every session. It’s a good dynamic. We’re having a good time actually.”
Power has led every on-track session around the temporary street circuit in downtown St. Petersburg. He was briefly bumped from the top starting spot by Pagenaud, but quickly reclaimed it with a lap at 1 minute, .6931 seconds.
“I was really satisfied to get pole,” said Power, who has now won five of the last six poles at St. Petersburg, and opened last year’s championship season with a win here.
His lap at 1:00.6509 in the second qualifying group stands as the track record, breaking the mark of 1:00.928 set by Sebastien Bourdais in 2003.
“I think just the way the team is, the teammates, it provides a lot of motivation,” Power said.
The Penske organization is actually on an unbelievable two-month run, beginning with Joey Logano’s win in the Daytona 500 in February.
Brad Keselowski then won the NASCAR race last week at California to ensure both Penske drivers will compete for the Sprint Cup championship this season.
Then Logano won the pole for Sunday’s NASCAR race, and won the Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday driving for a team owned by Keselowski.
“It seems as though Penske employs people with lots of experience,” Power said. “We know how to work together.”
Takuma Sato qualified fifth and Bourdais, for KVSH Racing, was sixth.
“It’s a bit of a Penske lockout,” Bourdais said. “We’re sort of the best of the rest — it makes you feel good and bad.”
In all Chevrolet took five of the six spots in the Fast Six round of qualifying. Sato, for AJ Foyt Racing, was the only Honda driver to make the top six.
“Obviously, congrats to the Team Penske with the dominance over the qualifying,” Sato said. “I’m happy to be in top six.”
In addition to the noticeable absence of Honda drivers in the final qualifying round was a void of drivers from Andretti Autosport or Chip Ganassi Racing.
“It was a disappointing qualifying run,” said Andretti driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. “From the first laps, I didn’t really feel we had the balance and the grip level.”
IndyCar this year has introduced new aerodynamic kits that have replaced the spec Dallara chassis. In addition to helping manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda differentiate themselves from each other, the cars will have additional downforce that will allow drivers to run faster and deeper into the corners.
Through preseason testing and the first two days of track activity at St. Pete, Chevy has a clear advantage.
No one has been sure what the new aero kits will do to competition, but it may not matter unless teams can first catch up to Penske and Honda proves to be as strong as Chevrolet.
“I was kind of worried that the competitiveness of this series wouldn’t be such this year. But it is. It’s right there as it was,” Power said. “To me, it’s the toughest open-wheel series in the world to compete in, and probably the best racing that fans can watch.”