Team Penske searching for answers after Indy 500 qualifying struggle

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INDIANAPOLIS – Team Penske’s expectation for excellence at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is set so high, it’s surprising when only one car qualifies for the Fast Nine Shootout.

Eyebrows rose even more when Will Power’s No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was the slowest qualifier in Sunday’s pole shootout for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“This place is so finicky,” said Power, the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion. “It was good to get one of the Penske Racing cars in there and have a shot at it.”

Power, a 36-year-old Australian, called his four-lap run “solid” and added, “That was as good as we had.”

Not that it’s time to panic, considering Team Penske cars have been consistently quick in practice while working on race setups. Plus, the team has a history of winning its share of a record 16 Indy 500s from beyond the front row. Since 2001, Roger Penske’s cars have prevailed from the 11th, 13th, 10th and 15th starting positions in addition to Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves winning from the pole in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

But in the upcoming May 28 running, Castroneves will start 19th, the worst qualifying position in 17 Indy 500 starts for the three-time winner. All Castroneves could do was shake his head when asked about the lack of qualifying speed.

“I wish I could tell you,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to go as fast as we can. Unfortunately, this place is difficult.”

Aside from Power, the Fast Nine Shootout breakdown consisted of four Andretti Autosport entries, two for Chip Ganassi Racing and two for Ed Carpenter Racing

The other Team Penske starting positions are two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya in 18th, Josef Newgarden 22nd and defending series champion Simon Pagenaud 23rd.

“It is a mystery,” Pagenaud said. “That’s what makes Indianapolis; that’s why this place is special. Sometimes it’s tough to figure it out. We can’t figure it out this month. Maybe when we put it in race trim, it will be different.

“The race car is very similar to last year’s car, really good in traffic. Turbulence has not really affected us, which is a big plus. Now if we can find some speed, that would help in passing people. But we’ll work on that before the race. There is a reason we are leading the championship.”

Montoya won his second Indy 500 with Team Penske in 2015 after starting from the 15th position. The Colombian’s previous Indy 500 win, while with Ganassi, was from the second starting spot in 2000.

“The experience of getting the job done here, I think it helps,” he said. “I don't play big into qualifying: I never have here. You know what I mean? For me, I proved it two years ago when I won; after eight laps, I was dead last. It doesn't really matter where you qualify.”

Newgarden is making his sixth Indy 500 start, but first with his new team in the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. The winner of last month’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama has had a rough month of May. Two pit speed violations dropped him back to 11th in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, he had to overcome an illness and then suffered a Turn 1 crash in Indy 500 practice. 

Last year with Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden enjoyed Indy 500 bests in qualifying second and finishing third. On Sunday, former teammates Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand qualified second and sixth, while Newgarden was relegated to the middle of Row 7.

“It’s what we had today,” he said. “We’re more focused on going racing. I’m excited about doing that with the hum Verizon guys. We’ll see what we’ve got next Sunday. Hopefully, we’ve got a better race car. I think we will. We’ve been working hard at Team Penske. We’ve got great cars. We’ve got to make sure to execute next Sunday.”

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