INDIANAPOLIS — It has been 26 years since a Roger Penske car missed the Indianapolis 500 in one of the lowest points for the storied organization. Penske now owns the place, yet his team stunningly finds itself fighting for a spot in the field.
Will Power, one of the greatest qualifiers in IndyCar history, failed to seal his spot in the 33-car field on Saturday’s first day of qualifications. The 2018 Indy 500 winner will be one of five drivers vying for the final three spots in the field Sunday when qualifying is completed.
Power’s struggles were the worst of a Team Penske group that has lagged behind the competition all week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“We’re slow,” team president Tim Cindric said. “If we knew [why], we wouldn’t be slow. We’re working on it.”
None of the four Penske entries have been that impressive, and the struggle to find speed stretched to Simona De Silvestro, who returned to Indy for the first time since 2015 with a female-led race team that is backed by Penske in his push for diversity.
De Silvestro beat the clock by a mere eight seconds for a final qualifying attempt, but it was not enough to lock her into the top 30.
“Watching her go by, I could tell by the sound,” team owner Beth Paretta said. “I knew she didn’t have it on the first lap.”
Power and De Silvestro will square off against Charlie Kimball, Sage Karam and rookie RC Enerson in a last-row shootout Sunday. Two drivers will miss the race, and the shootout field includes a pair of Penske cars for the first time since 1995, when Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi missed the event.
“You need to be a scientist to work this one out,” said Power, who with 62 poles trails only Mario Andretti’s record of 67 poles on the career list.
Power had qualified in the first three rows of the Indianapolis 500 in 11 of the past 12 years.
“We gave it our best shot. I think that if we just do a conservative run tomorrow, we should be OK,” Power said. “But if something goes wrong, you are out.”
No one expected a Team Penske struggle, but it was clear immediately Saturday that the Chevrolet-backed powerhouse had nothing for most of the field. But it wasn’t a Chevrolet issue, even though Honda claimed seven spots in the Fast Nine.
“This place is weird. You see that every year that somebody that you think should be really fast just ends up not being fast,” said Colton Herta, who was second fastest on the day. “For sure that Penske thing is weird.”
De Silvestro said she was “super happy” with how the No. 16 Chevrolet performed in practice — until series officials turned up the horsepower to increase speeds. The change threw off the car’s balance, and the speed has lagged.
“It’s really strange. Maybe we changed too much,” de Silvestro said. “I think I’ll spend the night doing a lot of video watching and going through a lot of data. We have one hour to put it in the show, and we need a clean run.”
The pole and first three rows for the May 30 race will be settled Sunday, and the quartet from Chip Ganassi Racing has the edge. Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon posted the fastest four-lap average to open qualifying, and nobody knocked him from the top spot over the next six hours.
Dixon said he was shaking in the team transporter when he tried to pull on his socks.
“It’s a big deal, right? You’re rolling out, the first time you go into Turn 1 at 240 mph, you’re hoping you’re going to come out the other side in one piece,” Dixon said. “T.K. [Tony Kanaan] and I were actually getting changed before we came out to qualifying, and he’s like ‘Hey man, do you still get nervous?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m really nervous.'”
Carpenter and VeeKay are the only Chevrolet drivers in the Fast Nine.
“I think we have just as good of a shot at winning a pole as any of these guys. I’ve been in this position enough times before,” said Carpenter, a three-time Indy 500 pole winner. “That’s the beauty of qualifying here. You have to go out and do four laps. After we all run four laps, we’ll find out who is the best. We have everything we need to go fight for it.”
The day was dominated by Honda, and at one point Dixon said the engine maker was chasing all nine slots in the Fast Nine. Helio Castroneves was sixth for Meyer Shank Racing, followed by Alex Palou of Ganassi, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti and Marcus Ericsson in the final Ganassi entry.
“To have all four [Ganassi] cars in the Fast Nine is pretty massive, especially with the competition level we have these days,” Dixon said. “Obviously, a huge shoutout to Honda for bringing the performance that they have.”
Palou was devastated, though, after crashing during a late-afternoon qualifying attempt. He had been worried he was going to be bumped from the Fast Nine and tried to better his time in the heat against the better judgment of his crew.
“I was pushing the team. The team was on the fence of going out now with the weather, so I was pushing them like, ‘Hey, guys, we have a fast car, we can go,'” Palou said. “So I’m feeling a bit stupid for not listening to the team and then really sorry for all the work they put in.”
The car could be repaired, and Palou does not need a backup for Sunday.
Marco Andretti, the pole sitter last year, complained about his slow car all week. Things looked so bleak initially that the third-generation racer feared he might not qualify.
He eventually moved up the board to 25th with a stronger run. Andretti stepped away from full-time racing this season but is back for his 16th 500 start, the only race on his calendar.