Saturday's motorsports: Chevy’s struggles keep Penske out of Indy 500 pole shootout
Indianapolis — One by one, Roger Penske’s four drivers took their shots during Indianapolis 500 qualifying Saturday.
Each time, they returned frustrated or flummoxed, futilely searching for answers.
And when the gun finally sounded, the most successful team in race history found itself shut out of Indy’s nine-car pole shootout for the first time since the format debuted in 2010. It’s also the first time Team Penske hasn’t had a car start in the first three rows since 2002.
“Not a chance, not a chance,” Will Power said disgustedly after posting a four-lap average of 229.701 on his four-lap run. “One of the slowest cars ever. We ran less down force than Josef (Newgarden) and it was slower. So that’s it, man, that’s what we’ve got. At least we can focus on the race now.”
The 2018 Indy winner made two more attempts but wasn’t any faster. Penske’s other drivers – three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves, defending Indy champion Simon Pagenaud and two-time series champ Josef Newgarden – continued making attempts, too.
Newgarden qualified 11th on the three-car, 11-row grid. He’ll start on the inside of Row 5 next Sunday. Power wound up 22nd with a 229.701, Pagenaud was 25th at 228.836 and Castroneves will be 28th – the worst starting position in his 20-year career at the Brickyard. He posted a 228.373
But unlike 25 years ago, when Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi did not qualify for the race, this was not just Penske’s problem.
The Chevrolet-powered cars struggled all day, with Honda engines claiming the top five seeds and eight of nine shootout spots. Marco Andretti had the fastest car at 231.351.
Rinus Veeky, the 19-year-old Dutch rookie, was the only driver standing in the way of a Honda sweep. He was sixth at 231.114.
“It was my fastest lap ever at Indy,” he said. “I haven’t done too many laps as a rookie, but I feel really happy. I had a good car at high speeds, so I already knew what the car was going to do. It just felt great and I didn’t have any problems at all.”
That was a rarity for the Chevy drivers.
VeeKay’s teammates, three-time pole winner Ed Carpenter and Conor Daly, qualified 16th and 18th. Carpenter also owns the team.
Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy winner, is starting 23rd, and JR Hildebrand, the 500 runner-up in 2011, qualified 32nd after avoiding the wall during his only attempt of the day. Two-time world champ Fernando Alonso never had a chance, either.
“I was happy with the run and I think it’s what we have at the moment,” the Spaniard said after qualifying 20th at 228.768 in his Chevy. “We knew this morning or maybe yesterday, we were not going to be real good with the boost. So we said let’s focus on the race car.”
The obstacles for Penske’s team kept getting worse.
“Obviously, we are working on it,” Castroneves said after making the first of three qualifying runs. “We’ve got to see if we can find something, just to find it. However it’s going to take at least two to 21/2 hours to cool down this car to see if that’s possible. We’re going to try. Otherwise, we have a very good car for the race.”
Things went so poorly, Newgarden and Power were back in line when Hildebrand, the last driver to make an attempt, finished his run.
When that didn’t work, Team Penske returned to its garage where crew members and engineers watched television coverage, looking for a glimmer of hope.
That moment came when points leader and 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon improved his morning time during a mid-afternoon run, sending he Penske crew back back to pit road. They tried everything, at one point even attempting to time a run under cloud cover.
Castroneves told NBC he finally figured out what was wrong on his ensuing run. But in a seemingly fitting conclusion to the day, Castroneves was still in line when time exprired.
“At least we can focus on the race now,” Power said. “We’ll work on the race car and then we’ll see.”
Rinus VeeKay made quite an impression with his first qualifying lap for the Indianapolis 500 – posting a career-best 231.789 mph.
He thinks he can go even faster.
The 19-year-old Dutch rookie took over the top qualifying spot briefly Saturday with a four-lap average of 231.114 before settling for the No. 6 seed in Sunday’s nine-car pole shootout.
“It doesn’t feel quick enough,” VeeKay said when asked about driving at such high speeds. “You always want to go quicker. The only thing you kind of feel speed wise is you can hear the revs being higher than they are normally.”
Indy is quickly becoming one of VeeKay’s favorite venues, too.
After team owner Ed Carpenter scolded the teenager for crashing twice in seven hours at Texas, VeeKay rebounded at the next race by driving from 18th to fifth in the Indianapolis Grand Prix, his best finish this season.
And with his top practice lap, 230.331, VeeKay wasn’t expected to be in the shootout mix Saturday.
But he took advantage of the No. 4 qualifying spot, strung together the first consecutive laps at 231 and bumped IndyCar veteran Graham Rahal out of the No. 1 spot on the grid. He wound up as the fastest Chevrolet in qualifications and will be the only Chevy-powered car in the first three rows.
And with a little luck, VeeKay could become the second rookie to win Indy’s pole since 1952. Teo Fabi was the pole-winner in 1983. Tony Stewart, also a rookie, started from the pole in 1996 after pole-winner Scott Brayton was killed in practice. Stewart qualified second that year.
“That first lap was kind of a shocker,” VeeKay said. “This morning I woke up, I said to my trainer, ‘My fast lap is going to be 231.8 and my average was going to be 231.3.’ It was pretty close. I’m really happy, I think the drop from the first to second lap was a little too big but as for the other laps, I think it was my best qualifying ever.”
Power streak ends
On Friday, Will Power said he thought the No. 12 car needed some luck to make the shootout.
When that didn’t happen, Power’s streak of 11 consecutive starts in the first three rows came to an end.
Power’s average of 229.701, sent him to the No. 22 starting spot, easily the worst of his 500 career. His previous low, No. 13, came in 2008 when he was a rookie with KV Racing. Power moved to Team Penske the following years and qualified in the top six in nine of the previous 10 years.
Earlier this year, Tony Kanaan announced he would be making his farewell tour this season.
Those plans may soon be changing. The popular Brazilian driver, who won the 500 in 2013, started rethinking his position after COVID-19 forced fans out of the stands.
“After this year, I think anybody is allowed to change their mind, because when I announced ‘TK Last Lap,’ it was to enjoy it with the fans at the racetrack and have a good time with them and so on, and that didn’t happen,” he said. ”I want to pay back my fans and friends and IndyCar what made me. This is not a proper way to go. I will rethink and re-evaluate my opportunities and chances, as well, because obviously there aren’t many out there. It’s such a competitive series, and we have such a great group of young kids that deserve a ride. We’ll see, but I am rethinking maybe to do the ‘TK Last Last Lap.’"