BELLE ISLE, Mich — On a day that saw 4 of the 6 Firestone Fast 6 positions taken by Meyer Shank Racing and Dale Coyne Racing cars, it was the juggernaut Team Penske who stole the pole on the last lap of qualifying on a beautiful Saturday afternoon on Belle Isle.
In the middle of the Detroit River, Josef Newgarden circled the scenic 2.35-mile street course with a time of 1:15.2153-seconds in his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet. It was good enough to top Takuma Sato by .134-seconds as Newgarden became the 7th different pole winner in 7 races run this season.
“This championship is incredible,” Newgarden said. “These guys are on it this weekend, as you can see. They were very difficult to beat.”
Sato turned his lap on Lap 2 but Newgarden perfectly timed himself to be the final car on track to cross the timing line. The round prior, he was the first car on pit road and had to sweat it out as the final driver into the Fast 6.
“I didn’t think we were going to have enough, to be honest,” Newgarden continued. “It’s taking us a little too long to build temperature so I really needed two laps. We went for a one to one strategy.
“On the second set of tires, I was actually up in 1-2 by a 10th. I thought I’m going to go as hard as possible, I’m either wrecking or I’m putting it on pole.
“Fortunately the car was very, very good. It was a little too loose. A couple corners I thought I was actually going to hit the fence. We hung on. Now we get to work toward tomorrow and hopefully have a clean day with Team Chevy and Hitachi.
“We saved the best tire for last, we just had enough.
“I mean, our car was very, very good. I thought the team did an incredible job. It’s just a little bit too loose. I think everybody is dealing with that this weekend. It seems the grip level is not coming up quite as quickly as you would anticipate around here. Normally this place builds, builds, builds, gets easier to drive. I find you’re pretty on the edge this weekend. Track grip is lower than I would anticipate.
“You just had to hold on. We were all doing it.
“That was one of the most satisfying pole laps I’ve ever had because of the difficulty of it. It was on the edge. It was not easy at all.
“Some laps you put together, the car is so hooked up and so good you’re kind of just steering it. Makes it sound a little bit too basic and simple. It feels that way at times.
“Today was not that case. It felt like you really had to go and attack and work for it. Like I said earlier, the way I started the lap was so promising. I was up already from the Q2 lap. I said if I can just really push this thing in the middle section of the track, I’m going to try to go for it. If I hit the fence, that’s what it’s going to be today. Fortunately we had just enough to not do that, had plenty of speed to put it on pole.
“It was on the edge. Four, five and six, I thought those three corners I was going to hit the wall, and we stayed off.”
He didn’t leave anything in doubt in the Fast 6 in storming to his 16th career NTT INDYCAR Series pole, 3 of which occurring right here in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, USA, INDYCAR Radio Network).
However, in his previous 2 poles here, he finished 19th and 2nd respectively. The 2nd place result came just last year with him leading the first 67 laps of the 70 lap event. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong tire strategy with thinking a caution was going to come out early for Dalton Kellett stalling on pit road and them pitting to be sure they didn’t get caught out. A yellow never came and it hurt Newgarden’s strategy in the long run.
Can he make up for that on Sunday?
He has a great shot to make up ground in points with him being 1 of just 2 guys that are in the top 7 in points to even start in the top 5 on Sunday. Marcus Ericsson is the current points leader and he’ll start 8th. Both Alex Palou (3rd) and Will Power (4th) in points will start 18th and 16th respectively.
Newgarden now has 4 front row starts in his last 5 Belle Isle tries.
For Sato, this was his first Fast 6 appearance here since his pole in 2017. He finished 4th that year. He was 11th in both practice sessions this weekend.
The MSR duo of Simon Pagenaud (1:15.3951-seconds) and Helio Castronevces (1:15.4538-seconds) will share Row 2 while Pato O’Ward (1:16.3301-seconds) and Sato’s DCR rookie teammate David Malukas (1:16.6104-seconds) rounded out the Fast 6.
“We both feel really proud of the team, Dale Coyne Racing, the 51 car, did fantastic job,” Sato said. “Obviously David, he did phenomenal job in the Q1, Q2. He pushed me so hard.
“Worked extremely well in the new tire condition. It was just studying the process of the segment. Finally I hook up, you know, quite good lap on the Q3. That was quite satisfying.
“We always knew that we had a speed, but just wasn’t be able to put everything together. This is weekend we feel like quite positive, so we are really happy. It is absolutely team effort.”
Malukas was equally as pleased.
“I feel like this whole start of the season we’ve always been really close to finding the car before qualifying, but always would miss it last second.
“The first time now we finally put it all together. I remember just doing the first two laps and saying, Wow, the car is spot on.
“Came in, Do we want to make any changes?
“I said, Do not touch it. This is good. I’m so happy.
“Me and Takuma, friendly competition, kept hearing Takuma made it, Takuma made it. Made me push even harder. Good for the team. Me and Takuma, we were pushing each other. I was like this close to the wall, so it was very good.”
Both also said though that they don’t know how their race pace will play out. They each know how important qualifying is in this series these days that they’ve spent both practice sessions focusing on qual sims thus far.
“Honestly we don’t know yet,” Sato said on their race pace. “We haven’t done the long runs. We don’t know how is these option tires survive. Last year half of the group will be able to make it in an entire stint on red tire, half not. We will see.
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s a tough to say here. The condition is very changing, but I would say we are very confident for package. Like David say, we consistently competitive. Okay, it’s only today and yesterday, but seems like different conditions we can adapting the conditions.
“We shall see tomorrow morning warmup and we will try to dividing some of the program and the sharing stuff and hopefully we’ll be competitive still in the race.”
“For me, I mean, to be fair, these two practice sessions we’ve focused on getting the car ready for qualifying and just getting the minimum out of one lap,” said Malukas. “I think that will be a really good question after warmup once we actually spend time on making sure the car is ready for doing long stints and being behind traffic and heavy fuel.”
DCR/MSR Quietly Shining This Weekend, Pageanud Creeping Up In Points Too
It wasn’t as much of a shock as you’d think to see 4 of the 6 Fast 6 positions taken by both Dale Coyne Racing and Meyer Shank Racing. DCR saw David Malukas be 5th in Saturday morning’s practice and qualified his No. 18 Dallara-Honda in 6th. Takuma Sato was 11th in both sessions this weekend and will start on the front row in 2nd.
MSR though has been even better. Simon Pagenaud was 4th and 2nd respectively in the two practices and also qualified his No. 60 Dallara-Honda in 3rd. His teammate Helio Castroneves was 7th and 4th himself in his No. 06 Dallara-Honda and starts 4th.
Castroneves now has 9 straight top 4 starting spots here in Belle Isle. For Pagenaud, this is a great chance for him to continue his ascension in points. He entered the Month of May 12th in the standings but after a runner-up in the GMR Grand Prix and an 8th place run in the Indy 500, he improved to 8th entering this weekend. The 2016 series champion has 4 top 11 finishes in the last 5 races on the year and will start 3rd on Sunday.
Rossi Has To Be Even More Frustrated
I wrote about this on Friday. We’ve seen Andretti Autosport come out of the gates hot during race weekends only to falter by time the checkered flag drops on Sunday’s. Well, it happened again.
A day after being 3-6-9-13 and a few hours after going 1-8-10-17, none of their drivers made the Fast 6 during qualifying on Saturday. Despite having 3 cars in the 2nd round, Romain Grosjean crashed on his final lap bringing out the red flag and essentially ending Round 2. At that time, Colton Herta sat 7th while Alexander Rossi was on a flier as the final car on track. With the crash, he had to slow and will instead start 11th alongside of Grosjean.
Rossi was 3rd and 1st respectively in practice and had 7 top 7 starts in his last 8 Belle Isle tries including 4 of his last 5 being on the front row. He was going to be a pole contender. Then his teammate crashes and all that hopes goes away.
This is the exact reason as to why he can’t wait to get to Arrow McLaren SP in 2023. He’s had chances to win races during this 43 race drought but instances like this one keep occurring and keeping him locked out of victory lane.
11th is not a great spot to start in order to win an INDYCAR race these days.
RLL’s Qualifying Woes Continue
Graham Rahal told me during the Indy 500 test in April that if RLL could figure out their qualifying woes, then they’d be a lot better. Their race pace is great. This team is always in the top 10 with their cars on race day. It’s the fact that it’s always a battle to get there and always having to come from behind to score top 10’s in the problem. If they started closer to the front, maybe they’d find victory lane more.
Rahal said that the reason they struggle in qualifying is because in the race, you don’t push the cars 100%. The RLL cars are great going 90% which is great for race pace. It’s when you have to get that extra 10% out of them, they become sketchy.
A week after having 2 of their 3 cars start in the final 3 spots for the Indy 500, all 3 will make up the bottom 8 spots in Belle Isle.
Rookie Christian Lundgaard starts 19th in his No. 30 Dallara-Honda. He’s qualified 15th, 25th, 20th, 14th, 8th, 31st and now 19th respectively in 2022. Jack Harvey starts 20th in his No. 45 Dallara-Honda. He’s started 23rd, 21st, 15th, 9th, 32nd and now 20th himself.
Rahal will come from 23rd in his No. 15 Dallara-Honda. He’s qualified 11th, 27th, 13th, 9th, 12th, 21st and 23rd. At one point in Belle Isle, Rahal qualified in the top 10 in 7 straight races. He’s been in the top 10 just once in the last 7.
ECR Narrowly Misses Out On 2nd Round
Ed Carpenter Racing had some high hopes entering this weekend. Rinus VeeKay had won the pole, led the most laps and finished 3rd in Barber. Conor Daly was 5th in the GMR Grand Prix and 6th in the Indy 500. For Belle Isle, both have runner-ups to their credit. Unfortunately, they’ll have to work hard to get to the front on Sunday with each sharing Row 7.
“I even decided not to eat lunch before the session, I thought that would have counted for the last hundredth but clearly it didn’t,” Daly said. “This morning’s session was complete and absolute craziness; we didn’t even get to finish one lap. We got a few laps in now and picked up three seconds. It really proves that our car had the pace in it we thought. Starting 13th is alright, we’ll be in a good position to take advantage of what happens up front.””
VeeKay missed out on the second round by .157-seconds in his No. 21 Dallara-Chevrolet. Daly was only .0087-seconds in his No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet from Round 2.
“There was a lot more in the car,” said VeeKay. “We couldn’t show it this morning because there were so many red flags, but the car felt good both in both practices. The balance was pretty good on the lap I did, but we are seven-tenths off. That is way too much! I know we can do a lot with strategy here, but it’s really disappointing to qualify 14th.”
Honda Beating Chevy In Their Own Backyard
Chevy may have went 1-2 on Friday but Honda took the next 5 spots and 10 of the top 13 in Session 1. On Saturday morning, it was Honda’s turn to go 1-2 and take 4 of the top 5 spots. For qualifying, they put 4 cars in the Fast 6 and have 9 of the top 12 starting spots for the race.
Is this Honda’s race to lose again?
Chevy started off 4-0 on the season but Honda swept the Month of May in Indy. They’ve also won 4 of the last 6 races in Motor City and would love nothing more to pick up a 3rd straight win on the season on Sunday too.
The thing is, Chevy has scored 99 wins since coming back to INDYCAR in 2012. A win on Sunday would mark 100 and they’d do so with the backdrop of the Chevy tower soaring above the track to the south.
Through the first six races of the season, we had seen pole records fall in half of them. Among the 3, 2 of which were on street courses. However, Belle Isle became the 1st street course race not to see a record fall. Takuma Sato’s lap of 1:13.6732-seconds is good for another year and will remain the Belle Isle record as we shift to the downtown streets next year.