Simon Pagenaud
Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Verizon IndyCar driver, Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet, led the formidable Team Penske to a 1-2-3-4 sweep of the Firestone Fast Six qualifying session Saturday afternoon at Sonoma Raceway. His lap of 1:16.2565/112.594 mph was a new track record, and his second of the afternoon. Pagenaud went even faster in Round One – 1:16.2530, and that is the lap which will hold up as the new official qualifying track record. The pole gives him a bonus point, stretching his gap to 44 points ahead of title contender and teammate, Will Power/No.12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

Second through sixth were Helio Castroneves/No.2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, Juan Pablo Montoya/No.2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, Power, Graham Rahal/No.15 Steak n’Shake Honda, and Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Honda.

The top Rookie was Alexander Rossi/No.98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda, who qualified eighth behind Scott Dixon/No.9 Target Chip Ganassi Chevrolet.

For the second time this year, Team Penske again qualified 1-2-3-4, putting bookends on the season: they also did so at the season’s opener race at St. Petersburg.

Saturday’s pole position was the ninth overall in Pagenaud’s IndyCar career, and seventh this season, the most of any IndyCar driver in one season since 2011 when it was his teammate, Power, had eight pole positions. Pagenaud’s front row seat marked the 245th pole for Team Penske.

Simon Pagenaud
Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Afterwards, Pagenaud couldn’t stop smiling. Gone was the serious look. “It’s awesome. I’m so proud of the HP Chevrolet team. What a dream season, seven poles, I mean it’s unbelievable.” He said he didn’t think about the bonus point during qualifying. “No, that is the most enjoyable day. Especially when you do one lap qualifying because the tires here they get so beat up by the track. The tires are awesome, but it’s just there is so much power in the cars and the hairpins and you just murder the rear. So you only have one real lap to do it, so you’ve got to put it all together in that one lap. That is what I call the animal instincts and you don’t think you just go. This is the best moment when you can drive this way.”

Castroneves was reservedly bubbly in the post conference. “Man, that was so close! The Hitachi Chevy has been fast all weekend and we showed it again today in qualifying. We felt good with our approach and the car was really consistent. I made just a little mistake and that probably cost us in the end because Simon was so fast, especially on red tires. Congratulations to Simon – that is good for him in the championship – and what a great job by Team Penske to qualify 1-2-3-4. It just shows how well we are working together.”

Power was a bit bemused in the post conference. “We were just not quite on the pace every round, basically. Just didn’t quite have it. Can’t really put my finger on why, will have to look at the data, but just, yeah, it wasn’t right on it. Kind of been the story all weekend; we’ve kind of been there, but not right there.

“That’s all I could do in qualifying, that was everything I had and the car had. It’s a long race. I think it’s going to be a race of degradation. It’s going to be really interesting the way the tires go.

“Last thing we need now is a straightforward race because Simon will be tough to beat if that’s the case. Honestly, I need to win the race to win the championship, and he has to have a bad day.”

Usually the Fast Six drivers come to a joint conference, but with having two title contenders, the practice was altered to avoid overwhelming the drivers and media. Rahal said on TV “I don’t think any session was smooth for us so far, but to come out of qualifying the top Honda is something that makes us very proud; particularly since the Andretti team has been so strong here this weekend. It was nice to beat them out there. We’re fifth and have four Penskes ahead of us. My guys have worked very hard; we’re the little team that can. Obviously we’ve got championship contenders in front of us, we’ve got to be smart about what we’re doing tomorrow but we’re here to win. I’m not going to sit around and wait for someone else to do it. We’ll push as hard as we can and hopefully we can get Honda, PennGrade, United Rentals and the rest of our sponsors in Victory Lane.”

RHR, also interviewed on TV, was not as pleased as he wanted. “We made the (Firestone) Fast Six, but we’re pretty disappointed with the result. We just missed a little bit with strategy and timing of our runs, and had some issues during the run that kept us from achieving the time that we had hoped to get for the DHL team. I don’t think we showed our full potential, but sixth is good starting spot. I just think we could have been quite a bit better.”

Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

One driver not heard from – publicly – was Montoya. He has been mostly unavailable all weekend. His later quote was “We had a really good day today and we knew we had a shot at it. I could just put the gas down in a couple of corners because the car had a little oversteer, especially in (Turn 7). But overall I am happy with it. It’s nice to see Penske sweep the front two rows. I know we did it in St. Pete, but didn’t start that way after Will couldn’t race. It’s neat to be a part of.”

James Hinchcliffe/No.5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda was understandably disappointed that he didn’t make it past the first round. He thought his repaired car was fine following his crew’s thrashing after Hinch’s accident during morning practice. Hinch said it confirmed what he said in his morning press conference about there only being one lap, or less, to get a good time on a set of tires. The Canadian driver said he thought he was fine coming out of the Carousel, but had an unexplained bobble or misstep in Turn Seven. He will start twentieth.

Scott DixonScott Dixon
Scott Dixon. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Dixon, the 2015 IndyCar Champion, has won twice at Sonoma. His crew had only ten minutes to beaver away between Qualifying Rounds One and two to tighten up a brake rotor. He missed out on making the Top Six by the narrowest of margins – .0032 seconds, in seventh position, behind Hunter-Reay. “We had some major vibrations on the qualifying run with the black tires, and then when we switched to the red tires it got even worse. I was actually surprised we were able to get through to (Segment 2). Overall we’ve been struggling with overall grip. The times are just so close. The Verizon IndyCar Series is just so close and cut throat these days. You can miss by just a little and be on the outside looking in.”

It’s not just the on-track performance which makes difference in knock-out qualifying, it’s about strategy also. When do you pit for a new set of tires in the Second Round, how long do you wait before going out so you can have clean air to run, and really crucial – what tires do you run in each session.

With only six minutes for the last round – the Firestone Fast Six, tire strategy is critical. Castroneves ran his first lap as timed – on Sticker Alternate/Red/Soft tires, and it was the fastest overall – at that point. The other five drivers, including Pagenaud, went out on scuffed Reds for the last run – saving Sticker Blacks for the race, and his last lap was the flyer, on a second set of Scuffed Reds. Those five drivers all set their best lap on their last lap, on a second set of tires. Three ran Scuffed Reds, while Power used Sticker Blacks.

Discussing tire strategy post-qualifying, Pagenaud said Qualifying was about preparing the car for the red Firestone tires, which we know I’m always more comfortable on those tires so I can always extract a little bit more from myself. It’s very gratifying (to beat teammate Castroneves, who was on sticker Reds), but the biggest thing is how good the car has been through the whole qualifying session. We talked about it this morning in practice and we have been working on making the car as good as it could before the Reds. It was always about guessing, we don’t get to test the red Firestone tires. Every time we put them on it’s a dream.”

Team Penske Anniversary Logo
Photo by Pablo Matamoros

1. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:16.2565 (112.594)
2. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:16.4134 (112.362)
3. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 01:16.5400 (112.177)
4. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:16.6659 (111.992)
5. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:16.7149 (111.921)
6. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:16.9132 (111.632)
7. (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 01:16.5700 (112.133)
8. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:16.5840 (112.112)
9. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 01:16.6115 (112.072)
10. (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:16.8142 (111.776)
11. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 01:16.8909 (111.665)
12. (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 01:16.9627 (111.561)
13. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 01:16.9481 (111.582)
14. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:16.9288 (111.610)
15. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 01:16.9661 (111.556)
16. (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 01:17.0314 (111.461)
17. (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 01:17.0823 (111.387)
18. (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 01:17.1310 (111.317)
19. (20) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:17.3052 (111.066)
20. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:17.1926 (111.228)
21. (18) Conor Daly, Honda, 01:17.6771 (110.535)
22. (19) RC Enerson, Honda, 01:17.3264 (111.036)