Penske rediscovers their St. Pete mojo

By Brant James

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The driver lineup has expanded and contracted and morphed. The race car has evolved in a multitude of ways. The downtown streets and airport runway on which the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is contested has even been paved in the previous 14 iterations of the race.

But each spring when the IndyCar series reconvenes here, Team Penske establishes itself as the benchmark. And the latest installment suddenly appears much the same, despite Will Power’s and Josef Newgarden’s frustration over the first two days of the season-opener.

Will Power celebrates his first pole on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit in 2010 (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

It’s hard to argue otherwise too profusely after Power on Saturday won his eighth pole in 12 tries here – 11 with Penske – and has Newgarden starting beside him on the front row.

Power, whose best lap time of 1:00.4594 was best among his foils in the Fast Six – and the speediest IndyCar lap of the weekend – coyly attempted to credit his Saturday performance on a nap he snuck during the afternoon as his young son, Beau slept in his motor coach. But there had been no nap in the case in the previous seven, or his wins at the track in 2010 and 2014, or the two runner-up finishes. Granted, Power qualifies well broadly, as his 55th career moved him within 12 of Mario Andretti’s record.

Will Power celebrates the NTT P1 Award with his nap mate, Beau, and wife Liz. (INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens)

But the nap certainly had nothing to do with Helio Castroneves winning on the 1.8-mile circuit a series-best three times, Juan Pablo Montoya twice and Ryan Briscoe once.

“I was kind of fresh,” Power asserted. “It’s been a tough weekend. We were tenth in practice and we just slowly worked on the car and got it better and better and better and even in qualifying we were making some kind of big changes. By the time we got to the Fast 6 we had a reasonable car, a good car, obviously.

“I was over the moon. I really didn’t think I would get pole. I knew Josef had really good tires and he had a similar car to me. Just happy for the team. We were on the back foot starting this weekend.”

Penske resources certainly allow the team to work on numerous areas of improvement during the offseason, likely giving it an advantage no matter where the season starts. Its damper program is purported to have made much to do with its early success when St. Petersburg joined the schedule in 2005 and Castroneves won two of the first three races.

And resources also allow Penske nimbleness when flaws are discovered and improvements are needed in a race weekend. Such, Newgarden said, was this case by qualifying because he, Power, and teammate Simon Pagenaud were denizens of the mid-pack on Friday. In the process, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay went from dominating the speed charts to again chasing Team Penske.

“We got a good group. I mean it comes down to the people,” Newgarden said. “We didn’t have the best cars yesterday. We just didn’t. We were scrapping to get in the top ten yesterday. We made a big leap today, and it takes people to do that. You have to be able to put good people together, and you have to be able to work through it every weekend and I think we do that. I would say we do that the best. So that’s what made the difference today, going over everything last night and making the jump and that obviously includes Chevy.

“The way they integrate with us is a big part of it. But it’s people. Roger preaches it, but you have to have the right people around each other and you have to have the right mindset and I think that’s why we got good cars around here. I think that’s generally why we have good cars on qualifying day and we figure it out.”