INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves has spent the past six years chasing history at the Indianapolis 500, trying in vain to join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. in an exclusive club of four-time winners.
He didn’t anticipate making a different kind of history last weekend.
Like nearly everyone else in the Team Penske stable, Castroneves has been fighting to find speed ever since road-course setups used during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis were kicked aside and practice on the big oval began. The frustration culminated with a qualifying effort that will leave Castroneves on the inside of Row 7 for the 10st running of the race he knows so well.
“We just didn’t have the speed,” he said.
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Neither did anyone else in The Captain’s ship.
Juan Pablo Montoya is starting a row in front of him. Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are a row behind. In fact, the only driver flying team owner Roger Penske’s banner that made the Fast Nine during qualifying was Will Power — and he’ll start ninth.
“The mysteries of Indianapolis sometimes,” Pagenaud said. “It’s what makes this place legendary.”
The problems for Team Penske have been about as unexpected as rookie Alexander Rossi’s victory last year, and have come about as quickly as Scott Dixon’s blistering pole speed.
Newgarden, Pagenaud and Power have won the last three IndyCar races, and along with Castroneves hold down four of the top five spots in the series standings. They had won all five poles before their failure last weekend, leaving many to wonder whether anybody would catch them this season.
Yet the hottest team has suddenly cooled off. The fastest has slowed down.
“I have to say,” Power said, “we were surprised not to have more cars in the top nine.”
Several Penske drivers pointed their fingers at Chevrolet, which has spent the past couple weeks chasing Honda around the Brickyard. Only the Chevy-powered cars of Ed Carpenter’s team found much qualifying speed, and a big part of that was a unique aerodynamic package they used.
But qualifying is different than race day, and Dixon and the rest of the guys running Honda engines know it’s possible Team Penske — and the Chevrolet bunch — could have something up their sleeve.
“To be honest, who knows what the other manufacturer brings come Carb Day?” Dixon said. “We’ve seen in the past that Honda can bring something bigger, too. We’ll take it with a grain of salt. I think that throughout qualifying we had a bit of an advantage, but I think it’s also pretty tight, too.”
If anybody can figure things out, Team Penske is a safe bet.
They have a record 16 wins in the Indianapolis 500 from 11 different drivers, the list reading like a who’s who of open-wheel racing: Castroneves and Montoya, Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi, Unser and his son, Al Unser Jr. Mark Donohue gave the team its first win in 1972, while Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan and Sam Hornish Jr. have all tasted the milk in victory lane.
Perhaps more noteworthy, the team has won from everywhere on the starting grid. Montoya started 15th in 2015 and quickly dropped to the rear of the field, only to storm right back for his second Indy 500 win and Team Penske’s most recent victory.
“The big difference is the engine. Honda has made big steps in the engine,” Montoya said. “I think we have a much better understanding of our aero kit and handling-wise, we’re much better than Honda.”
Much more reliable, too. Honda has been dealing with engine failures throughout the month, and the Chevrolet teams believe they can hold up better under the stress of a 500-mile race.
“Qualifying is behind us. Our focus continues to be on preparing for Sunday’s race,” said Mark Kent, director of motorsports for Chevrolet. “We are working to achieve the right balance of aerodynamic drag and downforce along with the engine performance, reliability and fuel economy required to put our teams and their drivers in the best position to win the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.”
Indeed, there is a certain amount of optimism that permeates Team Penske, even with uncertainty about what will happen during the final practice Friday and the race on Sunday. It’s born not of what the team has failed to accomplish this year, but what it has accomplished throughout the years.
“You always wonder what’s going to happen,” Penske said on a rainy Thursday afternoon at the track. “Every year there seems to be something different. There are years you think you should win and you don’t. There are years you think you shouldn’t and you do.”
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