It’s been 26 years since Roger Penske watched his cars leave Indianapolis Motor Speedway after failing to make the Indianapolis 500. Penske now owns the place, and yet his team stunningly finds itself again fighting for a spot in the field.
Will Power, one of the greatest qualifiers in IndyCar history, failed to seal his spot in the 33-car field on Saturday’s first day of qualifications. The 2018 Indy 500 winner will be one of five drivers vying for the final three spots in the field Sunday when qualifying is completed.
Power’s struggles were the worst of a Team Penske group that has lagged behind the competition all week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“We’re slow,” team president Tim Cindric said. “If we knew (why) we wouldn’t be slow. We’re working on it.”
None of the four Penske entries have been that impressive all week at Indy and the struggle to find speed stretched to Simona de Silvestro. She’s back at the Indy 500 for the first time since 2015 with a female-led race team that is backed by Roger Penske in his push for diversity.
De Silvestro beat the clock by a mere eight seconds for a final qualifying attempt but it was not enough to lock her into the top 30. Power and de Silvestro will square off against Charlie Kimball, Sage Karam and rookie R.C. Enerson in a last-row shootout Sunday.
Two drivers will miss the race and the shootout field includes a pair of Penske cars for the first time since 1995 when Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi missed the race.
“You need to be a scientist to work this one out,” said Power, who with 62 poles trails only Mario Andretti’s record of 67 poles on the career list. Power had qualified in the first three rows of the Indy 500 in 11 of the last 12 years.
“We gave it our best shot. I think that if we just do a conservative run tomorrow we should be OK,” Power said. “But if something goes wrong you are out.”
No one expected a Team Penske struggle but it was clear immediately Saturday that the Chevy-backed powerhouse had nothing for its top rivals. But it wasn’t a Chevrolet issue, even though Honda claimed seven spots in the Fast Nine.
“This place is weird. You see that every year that somebody that you think should be really fast just ends up not being fast,” said Colton Herta, who was second fastest on the day. “For sure that Penske thing is weird.”
Scott McLaughlin, the IndyCar rookie making his Indy 500 debut, was fastest among the Penske drivers at 17th. Josef Newgarden was 21st and Simon Pagenaud was 26th.
The pole and first three rows for the May 30 race are settled Sunday and the quartet from Chip Ganassi Racing has the edge. Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon posted the fastest four-lap average to open qualifying and nobody knocked him from the top stop over the next six hours.
Colton Herta for Andretti Autosport was second fastest and followed by Ganassi driver Tony Kanaan. Ed Carpenter was fourth and followed by Rinus Veekay, the 20-year-old Ed Carpenter Racing driver who scored the first IndyCar win of his career last week on Indy’s road course.
Carpenter and VeeKay are the only Chevrolet drivers in the Fast Nine.
“I think we have just as good of a shot at winning a pole as any of these guys. I’ve been in this position enough times before,” said Carpenter, a three-time Indy 500 pole-winner.
“That’s the beauty of qualifying here, you have to go out and do four laps. After we all run four laps, we’ll find out who is the best. We have everything we need to go fight for it.”
The day was dominated by Honda and at one point Dixon said the engine-maker was chasing all nine slots in the Fast Nine. Helio Castroneves was sixth for Meyer Shank Racing and followed by Alex Palou of Ganassi, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti and Marcus Ericsson in the final Ganassi entry.
“To have all four (Ganassi) cars in the Fast Nine is pretty massive, especially with the competition level we have these days,” said Dixon. “Obviously a huge shout-out to Honda for bringing the performance that they have.”
Palou was devastated, though, after crashing during a late afternoon qualifying attempt. He’d been worried he was going to be bumped from the Fast Nine and tried to better his time in the heat of the team against the better judgement of his crew.
“I was pushing the team. The team was on the fence of going out now with the weather, so I was pushing them like ‘Hey, guys, we have a fast car, we can go,'” Palou said. “So I’m feeling a bit stupid for not listening to the team and then really sorry for all the work they put in.”
The car could be repaired and Palou does not need a backup for Sunday.