NEWTON, Iowa – Team Penske’s second-half surge seems well underway in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
One race after defending series champion Josef Newgarden led 53 of 55 laps to win on the Road America permanent road course, he and his teammates claimed three of the top four qualifying spots on Saturday at the unusual 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway oval in preparation for Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300.
Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power won his 52nd all-time Indy car pole – one short of A.J. Foyt for second on the all-time list – with Newgarden second and Simon Pagenaud fourth. Power’s 182.391-mph, two-lap effort eclipsed Newgarden’s 181.160 handily as he attempts to win for the first time at the short track near Des Moines.
Three-time Iowa winner Ryan Hunter-Reay (180.681 mph) broke up the Penske bloc by qualifying third as Andretti Autosport – which has claimed wins in seven of 11 Indy car races at Iowa – also qualified Alexander Rossi fifth (180.313). Newgarden led the first practice session on Saturday, followed by Power, Hunter-Reay and Rossi to establish an early theme for the weekend: homework matters.
For a Penske team that has won 12 of 17 second-half Verizon IndyCar Series races since 2016 (with Pagenaud and Newgarden each taking home a championship), this is no surprise. But it is also no accident, in this case for Penske or Andretti. Both were among a group of teams that tested at Iowa last week, with Andretti Autosport’s four drivers unofficially pacing the session and Team Penske’s trio taking fifth through seventh.
“Just having five or six hours of track time (at the test) was invaluable,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet who led 282 of 300 laps to win at Iowa with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2016. “It is so beneficial for us to be able to work through the car because it's a new package this year, not just from a car standpoint but an aerodynamic standpoint. The aero package is very different. We were able to work on qualifying, racing, just general philosophy of how we set up the car. We've worked on everything.
“I think all of it was a benefit. It gives us a kick-starter for a weekend like this. If you didn't test here, it's pretty tough to get it right. You have an hour (practice) in the morning and then you've got to qualify, and then you have an hour (practice) in the afternoon and then you've got to go race, so it's a tight turnaround for people that didn't test.”
Points leader Scott Dixon was among drivers who did not test at Iowa, but the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda veteran qualified sixth at 179.526 mph. Even considering the Penske push, the four-time series champion remains an obvious concern for Newgarden’s bid to become the first Verizon IndyCar Series driver to repeat as champion since Dario Franchitti won his third consecutively in 2011.
Dixon holds a 45-point lead over Hunter-Reay and Rossi in the standings, with Newgarden 50 behind the leader. Including Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network), seven races remain.
“Guys like Scott that's a veteran, that's been in it forever, and a guy like Hunter-Reay, I think you're always going to have those guys up at the top toward the end,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. “They know how to put a season together, and they're a threat all the way through to the finish.”
And although Team Penske seems eminently prepared at Iowa, the track and its bumpy, low-grip gauntlet – a sensation accentuated by a new aerodynamics package that yields less downforce – has evolved into the most physically demanding on the circuit.
Power and Newgarden agreed that tire degradation will become a major factor after just 30 laps, well short of a fuel stint. Power joked that opposing drivers – perhaps mitigating numb hands and feet as he and Newgarden had during test laps – should lobby for new tires every 30 laps on a six-stop strategy. And while some competitors were unsettled with their race car on Saturday, Power and his teammates enter the race and continuing into the crucial situation prepared and confident.
“When people struggle, they always go in panic mode,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “I think that's the thing. When people struggle, they want a Band-Aid, and downforce is the Band-Aid to make everything feel real good.”
For Team Penske and Andretti, utilizing a crucial test allocation at Iowa served the same purpose.