Roger Penske is a perfect 5-for-5 in Verizon P1 Award pole winners this Verizon IndyCar Series season.
But the car owner with more wins in Indy car races and the Indianapolis 500 than anyone doesn’t waste five minutes thinking about it as his four-car team prepares to take aim at the pole for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“That’s in the rear window,” he said today.
Make no mistake, come late Sunday afternoon after the Fast Nine Shootout, the legendary team owner would like to see a Team Penske car number atop the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scoring pylon. Penske has had 17 Indy 500 pole winners in addition to his record 16 victories at “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
But poles don’t drive “The Captain.”
Penske’s weekend priorities are focused on his cars – driven by three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya, 2014 series champion Will Power and current points leader Simon Pagenaud – qualifying as close to the front as possible.
“Obviously having a pole position at Indy is pretty special because you get a week of notoriety, which is great for your sponsors and certainly for you as a driver and as a team,” Penske said before “Fast Friday” practice. “But the one thing you’ve got to realize is that the winner comes out of probably the first two or three rows every year. What you need to do is be competitive on pole day.”
Penske, 79, is celebrating his team’s 50th anniversary in racing. Over those five decades, 36 Indy 500 winners started in the first three rows. The last four years, however, the winner has come from farther back. Last year, Montoya drank the milk in Victory Lane after starting 15th.
What would be ideal, of course, is owning the entire front row. Penske has pulled that off once at IMS with Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser in 1988. Mears (pictured above with Penske, left, and Castroneves, right) won the race that year, too.
Pagenaud, racing’s hottest driver with three consecutive wins including the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 14, has won the past two poles in the Penske streak. Castroneves claimed the two before that after Power qualified first in the season opener. The pole streak is actually at seven dating to 2015 when Castroneves and Power earned the front starting spot at the season’s last two races.
“It’s amazing when you think about it,” Penske said of the pole streak, “and I think this pole is something special, but we’ve really got to focus on the race. We’ve got to be careful. If all you’re doing is running for the pole, you miss the race setup.”
Castroneves claimed the Indy 500 pole in 2003, ’07, ’09 and ’10. He’s two shy of the record held by Mears, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and now a Team Penske driver coach and spotter for Castroneves.
While other teams have had cars zooming toward the front of the daily speed chart in practice, the Chevrolet-powered Penskes have been consistently quick on the no-tow list, the speeds run without the benefit of drafting off other cars. These speeds are more telling because, lest anyone forget, the cars run alone when qualifying for four laps.
Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, winner of the 2014 Indy 500, has had one of the faster cars in what could signify a resurgence for Honda’s engines and aero kits. But he didn’t get overly excited about finishing first on Wednesday’s speed chart with a tow-aided lap. He teased Power about holding back in practice.
How sure is Hunter-Reay of a Penske car being among the pole contenders?
“I’ll put money on it,” Hunter-Reay said. “Hopefully we’re still in the mix.”