Helio Castroneves/No.3 Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet set a new qualifying record Saturday afternoon – for the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix and for the Verizon IndyCar Series, turning a time of 1:06.6294/106.331mph, to score the Verizon P1 Award. The weather was vintage Long Beach – sunny, blue and 72 – and a track temperature of 119 degrees Farenheit.
Castroneves’ Penske teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya/No.2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was second fastest, and a third Penske driver, Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet was fifth.
Scott Dixon/No.9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing was third, followed by the lone Honda in the top Six – Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Honda. Sixth fastest was the only non-Big Three driver, Josef Newgarden/No.67 Hartman Oil CFH Racing Chevrolet.
Gabby Chaves/No.98 Bowers & Wilkins/Curb Honda was the top Rookie, in seventeenth place.
The fourth Penske driver, Will Power/No.1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet had a disappointing time in the penultimate qualifying segment for the top 12 drivers. As he was readying to go out for a fast lap with a minute+ remaining, the Red Flag was thrown for Stefano Coletti/No.4 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet. The Rookie spun and hit the wall, spreading debris on course. The clock kept running and time ran out for Power, who was expected to be a top pole position contender.
Power was obviously sad but philosophical rather than bitter, as might be expected. He will discuss strategy with his team Saturday night. “We have plenty of red tires for Sunday’s race.”
This is Castroneves’ first pole at Long Beach since 2001… not 1986 as joked by RHR. And, it is his 42nd career open wheel pole position, making him fourth on the all-time list. The record he broke was set ten years ago, by Sebastien Bourdais with a time of 1:06.886, and he won that race. The current 1.986-mile, 11-turn configuration has been in place since 2000.
The two oldest, most veteran drivers are starting side by side on the front row, an observation not unnoticed by the two. They are now only separated by nine points in the Drivers’ Standings – JPM has 84 points, and now with the Bonus Point for pole position, Castroneves is at 75 points.
Montoya, almost 40, was Champion in 1999, while Castroneves, 40, has been runner-up four times. The two joked about each other, with back and forth banter. Castroneves called Montoya Gordito and so it went – size and age didn’t matter, JPM’s edge on downforce, etc. There definitely is levity and chemistry among the Penske Posse.
The times started falling early on in the first of four separate qualifying sessions. Tony Kanaan/No.10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet set a new track record in the first session, of 1:06.7442. That time held until Castroneves went faster in the Firestone Fast Six session, small consolation to the ebullient Brazilian, who barely missed out making it into the last session.
Castroneves said “For us we keep pushing. The guys changed a lot overnight and we started today like the beginning of the weekend. With Roger as strategist, we’re spot on. The track is pretty much the same, but the cars are different. So we’re a second faster this year. Those are the difficult challenges we all have now.” He said he missed his ‘rabit ears’ part of the aero kit which IndyCar mandated removed for this weekend “It affected us. But, we gotta dance according to the music.”
“We’ve got a ton of power” said JPM, speaking of his new Chevrolet aero kit. “We spent two days trying to figure it out, and then just put it back the way we started and things were good. Welcome to motor racing.”
Dixon said “We seemed to do really good on the black (primary) tires. With the time difference with the red tires (alternate/option) but we just didn’t find it. Long Beach is always a tough one and strategy is definitely going to be top of the mind.”
RHR said “It’s great to be back in Long Beach. That was pressure-packed. This is another step forward with this new Honda aero package, and I think it’s obvious you can see it. We’re making steps and I think we just keep chipping away at it and we’ll be able to close that gap (to the Penske team.)
Pagenaud is less verbose and more reticent than his Penske Pals. “We’ve been fast in every practice. Team Penske did a great job. Overall, it’s been a good weekend so far. Hope it stays that way tomorrow.”
Newgarden, the new kid on the block at 24+, said “We had a pretty disastrous practice one here, we tried something different that didn’t work. We recovered really well as a group, got ourselves some speed again. Finally got into the (Firestone) Fast Six, we’re happy about that. We’re still tweaking our tire strategy to get better and catch Penske. Gotta keep developing, and it won’t be a Penske runaway. It will be a dogfight at the end of the season.”
In the first Qualifying session, four drivers received action from IndyCar. Fastest driver Kanaan and Graham Rahal/No.15 Steak n’ Shake Honda were given a warning for “Qualifying Interference.” James Hinchcliffe/No.5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda and Conor Daly/No.18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda had their fastest qualifying laps eliminated for “Driving too fast in a local yellow zone.”
Kanaan will start seventh, Rahal starts eighth, Hinchcliffe will be thirteenth on the grid, and Rookie Conor Daly – in only his second session in the car this weekend – starts twenty-first. He got the call from team owner Dale Coyne while he was at breakfast Saturday morning in the Honda tent, minutes before the morning practice session. Daly ended up borrowing a car seat from Marco Andretti/No.25 Snapple Honda.
The IndyCar live telecast begins at 1pm PDT/4pm EDT. The broadcast team includes play-by-play with Brian Till, along with analysts (indy drivers) Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Pit Reporters are Kevin Lee, Robin Miller, Marty Snider and Kelly Stavast. Paul Page will call the race on the IMS Radio Network, with (former indy driver) Davey Hamilton as analyst.
Castroneves car and Castroneves Award photos courtesy of Chevrolet Racing.