Even after taking St. Pete pole, Chevy feels tightened competition

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- Here’s a sentence you don’t read often in relation to Verizon IndyCar Series racing: Chevrolet may have won the pole, but this wasn’t its best performance.

Chevy driver Will Power won the pole during Saturday’s qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It was his seventh pole position in eight years around the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street circuit.

But beneath the surface of Power’s No. 1 starting position for today’s race (noon ET, ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) lies a more troubling statistic for his engine manufacturer. Just one other Chevy-powered car, driven by Power’s Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden, made it into the top 10.

After Newgarden’s fourth-place starting spot, a Chevy driver does appear on the starting grid until 11th (AJ Foyt Racing’s Carlos Munoz). More uncharacteristically, the other two Team Penske drivers – defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and past St. Petersburg winner Helio Castroneves – will start 14th and 16th, respectively.

“At this point we can’t speculate,” Castroneves said shortly after climbing out of his No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet, after failing to advance out of the first round of knockout qualifying. “Honestly, I felt like I had a very good car. I just had a little bit of a push in the corners that at times made it really slow.”

While it might not appear like much on its face, the redistribution of Honda and Chevy across the grid indicates a minor sea change in Verizon IndyCar Series racing. During the previous five years, Chevrolet won 63 of the 84 races. Last year, Chevy won 14 of 16 races.

But during the offseason, Honda Performance Development scored a major coup when it joined forces again with Chip Ganassi Racing and its four drivers – Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball. Dixon qualified second Saturday, followed by Kanaan (sixth), Chilton (seventh) and Kimball (ninth).

In part, Honda has benefitted from a freezing of rules surrounding the cars’ aero kits between the 2016 and 2017 seasons in anticipation of a universal kit for all cars to use in 2018.

“It was natural that we were going to gain more, in a frozen-rules scenario, than the other guys,” said James Hinchcliffe, who will start third today in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. “I think that’s a large part of it, but then you take into account that the other guys lost four really good cars (the Ganassi team) and Honda gained those. That’s part of the balance, as well.”

Balance is the operative word. While top-to-bottom qualifying was beneficial to Honda, the collective result was incredibly close. Power’s Chevy beat runner-up Dixon’s Honda by just 0.1579 of a second, while the top 19 cars in the 21-car field are separated by just 0.7825 of second.

“I’m very happy to be on the pole,” Power said. “It’s very tough competition.”

As Castroneves noted, where you start the race doesn’t matter nearly as much as where you finish.

“This is going to motivate us more to do something crazy, and I have just the guys to do that on strategy,” Castroneves said. “We’ve just got to focus on our stuff. I know these guys are really strong, and that’s what I’m counting on.”

Final practice begins at 9 a.m. ET today and will be streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. The 110-lap main event kicks off the 17-race Verizon IndyCar Series season.

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