Josef Newgarden

NTT INDYCAR SERIES points leader Pato O’Ward sized up his disappointment with Saturday’s NTT P1 Award qualifying run at Portland International Raceway by saying everyone he needs to beat for the championship “(is) in front of me, so I need to pass them.”

Not all of them.

Josef Newgarden, who enters the final three races in third place and 22 points out of the lead, couldn’t explain why he will start 18th in a 27-car Grand Prix of Portland field. His fastest Group 1 qualifying lap seemed tidy enough, but it didn’t have the necessary speed, which had him perplexed.

“I don’t know, we just didn’t have any pace,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. “It wasn’t a bad lap; it just wasn’t fast. So, I don’t know, I’m not sure.”

Newgarden had been happy with Saturday’s pre-qualifying practice, a 75-minute session in which he completed the fifth-fastest lap at 58.8947 seconds. But then he could only manage 59.1371 in qualifying.

Again, he had no explanation.

“I think we have a lot of fight, so we’ll fight back,” he said.

That will have to be theme of the entire Team Penske organization. For the first time this season, no member of the four-car organization advanced to the second qualifying round. Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet) was the highest of the team’s qualifier in 14th. Series rookie Scott McLaughlin (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet will start 15th with Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet) 26th.

There was better news for Newgarden in the final practice Saturday afternoon. He ended up second overall at 59.6296, just behind Scott Dixon’s leading time of 59.4111 in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda.

O’Ward will start seventh in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. He said his pace on the Firestone alternate (red) tires “was horrendous.” He said he can “do a lot” from the seventh starting position as he seeks his third win of the season.

NTT P1 Award winner Alex Palou and fellow Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Marcus Ericsson, along with Newgarden, also have two wins this season. Ericsson, 60 points behind Palou in fifth, will start 10th in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Castroneves Getting Back in Portland Groove

Helio Castroneves (No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda) has qualified on the front row twice at PIR, including once from the pole. In two of his four races at this track, he has led 115 laps, highlighted by leading 85 of the 112 laps in his third start.

Call it experience, yes, but do not call it relevant. The Brazilian’s last race on this circuit was in 2001 while a member of Team Penske’s organization, and the series that afternoon was Champ Car. And remember, Castroneves has not been a full-time driver in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES since 2017, which is why he didn’t compete at this track in 2018 or 2019.

Still, Castroneves got off to a quick start Saturday, turning the second-fastest lap of the morning practice at 58.8850 seconds. But his best lap in qualifying was 59.4190, relegating him to the 17th starting position.

“There were several things that we decided to try,” he said. “Obviously, we wanted to go faster, but that didn’t get No. 1. There are things – details – that I still need to understand (returning to many of these circuits).”

Castroneves mentioned the temperature change from morning practice to afternoon qualifying, which reduces the car’s downforce level.

“Those things people don’t realize that it’s such a big difference, especially at a place where there’s so much commitment (to cornering),” he said. “You can see: Everyone’s so tight, and lap times are so close.

“The good news is, we made the lap time (earlier), so we have the speed. We just need to put a little bit together.”

Castroneves is not the only MSR driver with such work ahead of him. Teammate Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) qualified 20th at 59.1463 after turning the third-quickest lap in practice (58.8887 seconds).

Askew Delivers Quickly

Oliver Askew made his debut with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the first of three races to complete this season with the team. He got off to a quick start, qualifying ninth in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda.

This will be the third INDYCAR start of the season for 2019 Indy Lights champion Askew, and he has driven for three different teams. He twice replaced injured drivers – Felix Rosenqvist in an Arrow McLaren SP car in the second Detroit race and Rinus VeeKay in an Ed Carpenter Racing machine at Road America.

Again, Askew has had very limited pre-race track time, but he said getting the chance recently to try PIR in Honda Performance Development’s simulator was a big help Saturday.

“You have to be super happy with (ninth),” he said of his rank in qualifying.

Askew is one of the 10 drivers competing in his first INDYCAR race at this track. The others: McLaughlin, O’Ward, VeeKay, Dalton Kellett, Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou, Jimmie Johnson, Romain Grosjean and first-time INDYCAR driver Callum Ilott.

However, Askew, O’Ward, Kellett and VeeKay competed in Indy Lights races on this track. O’Ward won both Indy Lights races in 2018, and Askew finished on the podium for both races in 2019 (finishing second and third). VeeKay won one of the 2019 races and finished second in the other.

Ilott will start 19th in the season debut of Juncos Hollinger Racing, which is fielding the No. 77 Chevrolet.

Odds and Ends

  • The NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock observed a moment of silence Saturday at 7:28 a.m. local time out of respect for the exact moment when the North Tower of the World Trade Center fell 20 years ago in New York. A call-out campaign for blood donations in partnership with the American Red Cross is underway, and a commemorative charitable pin bearing the motto “Together We Stand” is available for purchase online at the Official INDYCAR Shop. Teams and cars carried the logo Saturday.
  • Robin Miller, the legendary journalist and broadcaster who died Aug. 25, was honored in the track’s media center with a reserved seat and many of the food and drink items he was fond of. A shirt similar to one he frequently wore hung over the seat’s chair.
  • Colton Herta admitted it was a gamble to use primary (black) Firestone tires in the Firestone Fast Six round. He had been fourth in the second round but was last among the six drivers in the final qualifying session. “It’s not too bad of a place to be,” he said of starting sixth.
  • Max Chilton will start a season-high 10th in the No. 59 Carlin Chevrolet. His previous best was 15th in the second Detroit race in June.
  • There are 27 car-and-driver combinations in this race, and the same number are expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (Sept. 19) and the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sept. 26). That represents the largest three-race stretch of entries for the series in 10 years.
  • Since 2008, the series leader with three races to go has won the title eight times and lost it five. That bodes well for an exciting end to this season with 10 points separating O’Ward and Palou.
  • Alexander Rossi will start second in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda of Andretti Autosport, which suggests a new season winner could be on the horizon. There have already been nine. The modern-day series record is 11.