Andretti Grabs Pole For IndyCar Finale
FONTANA, Calif. – With all of the focus on the IZOD IndyCar Series championship between Team Penske’s Will Power and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay going into Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway, it provided an opportunity for another driver to deflect the storyline.
That is what Marco Andretti did on Friday by winning his first pole of the season and second of his career. He drove his Dallara/Chevrolet to a two-lap average of 216.069 miles per hour – just a tick faster than Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe in a Dallara/Chevrolet at 216.058 mph.
It’s Andretti’s first pole since 2008 at The Milwaukee Mile.
Power has a 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay leading into the final race of the season and qualified third with a two-lap average of 215.940 mph. But he is one of 14 drivers that will move back in the field after making an unapproved engine change and will start the race 13th. Hunter-Reay had a miserable qualification effort with a two-lap average of 212.773 mph and was also one of the 14 drivers penalized. He will actually start 22nd in the 26-car field after many of the drivers in front of him were also in the group of penalized drivers.
But over the course of a 500-mile race, this is the one track where starting position probably won’t matter.
“It’s not a great qualifying run for us but it’s a 500-mile race so I’m really not that bummed about it,” Hunter-Reay said. “We just hadn’t dialed our qualifying trim in with the DHL/Sun Drop car and that caught us out a bit. We missed the balance and (the car) took off on me a bit there at the exit. It was definitely hard to put a good two laps together. We’ve been focusing on the race though – that’s the big thing, we haven’t done any qualifying runs today so it’s something that we just haven’t really put a lot of time into. Tonight we’ll go out and work on race trim and get these four Andretti cars up front.”
It didn’t get much better for RHR in the final practice session as he was all over the track at times and finished with the 21st fastest speed of 209.360 mph. That was actually faster than Power, who was 23rd at 208.243 mph in the final practice.
“Honestly, the only thing that it’s good for is to maybe be keeping out of if something happens,” Power said. “Apart from that, you can start a lap down, still come back and win the thing. You can be a lap down halfway and still come back and win.
“So it’s not a big deal.”
When Hunter-Reay heard that he was quick with a comeback of his own.
“I agree — I think Will should start a lap down,” Hunter-Reay said. “It doesn’t matter because it’s 500 miles. If you have a well-balanced race car, it’s fine. You don’t want to put yourself in a position to be buried in traffic, like I was saying before, have to deal with cars that might have handling issues as well.
“It’s always better to be up at the front. It’s usually drama-free. We’ll be looking to get up there as soon as possible.”
Power called his qualification laps unpredictable.
“I was the first of my team’s cars, too,” he said. “The wind changes, the whole track changes. I had totally different balance to what I had all weekend. Yeah, I mean, man, I got the hard rev limiter both laps down the back straight on a bump. Sometimes I’m glad when I start on pole but every time, if I start on pole, it’s bad and when I start back in the pack, it’s great. Hopefully that’s true here.
“It’s a 500-mile race. It would have been nice to get the point. We’ll see tomorrow and I’ll just hang in there, just stay there and hopefully have a shot.”
For the most part Power’s strategy is simple. If he finishes ahead of Hunter-Reay he wins the championship. There are over 30 different scenarios for Hunter-Reay to claim the title, however.
“We are focused on the things we can control,” Power said. “Things are out of your control in the race. We are going to do what we can, and see how it ends up.”
Rookie Josef Newgarden of Henderson, Tennessee qualified fourth at 215.919 mph in a Dallara/Honda but is another driver with a 10-spot penalty. Scott Dixon rounded out the top five at 215.391 mph in a Dallara/Honda for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing but is on his seventh engine and will get a 10-grid spot penalty.
The official starting order has yet to be released by IndyCar so the order will be different when Andretti leads the field to the green flag at 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time.
But it is certain Andretti will start on the pole alongside Briscoe.
“It means a lot, just what we have been going through this year,” Andretti said. “Me in particular just been a very trying year for me and my career. It’s good for the confidence, but we still got to get a race car under us tonight which I think we can do. But credit to the whole RC team, but the whole Andretti Autosport is just taking a huge step up this year. And let the best man win tomorrow.
“This season has been the toughest part of my career. It is inspiring me to work harder outside the track and work harder in the car and still try to see what I need in the set up to get me quick, because I am not going to be quick on these tracks. And a little bit of leading luck will help.”
“I had my mind made up that I was going flat. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen. I even talked about it with my engineer. If I do a lazy lift, we’re not going to have a chance for the pole. I just went for it on lap one. She hung in there. But then lap two, I committed again to being flat. I had an even bigger lift. I should have, hindsight lap two, just done a lazy life, just committed to lifting. Instead I committed to going flat and had to bail out big-time. That almost caught me out with Ryan. I was worried about that.
“I’ve been on the outside looking in on that hundredth of a mile an hour for the pole. I was on the good side of that today.”
Up front, Andretti realizes his teammate is battling for the championship and would like to see Hunter-Reay steal the title away from Power. But Andretti admitted he has his own goals that he wants to achieve in Saturday night’s race.
“We’re definitely showing up here to win,” Andretti said. “I know my teammate is in the championship. We’re going to help him if we’re around him on the track by not interfering, but this is going to race like a high-speed short oval. There’s not much I can do drafting-wise to actually help him. I’m not going to hurt him or Will. I’m going to be out to try to win the race, end on a good note to carry some momentum into the off-season it is been my street courses.
“My road courses I’m fine. It’s the street courses that have been killing me. It’s inspired me to work harder off track, really try to find what I need at those places in the setup. We’ll be working hard on that in the off-season.
But it’s so close. I mean, if you’re on the outside of those 2/10ths, you’re 16th where I’ve been hanging out lately. It’s frustrating. We need to look at that. If we do, we can be the one contending for the championship next year, no question.”
Briscoe could be driving in his final race with Team Penske. His contract expires at the end of this season and has been linked with a move over to the No. 38 Dallara/Honda currently driven by Graham Rahal. That driver is expected to compete for his father’s team next year – Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing.
“It was good,” Briscoe said of his two-lap qualification run. “On my warm-up lap, I run the limiter up in turn three on that bump, so I went to the top gear which wasn’t ideal. It was sort of dragging around the track, but I didn’t hit the limiter. I went into qualifying saying there are two things I need to do. I need to be flat (full throttle), and I need to not be in the limiter. So I just went to the tall gear, and it was a bit sluggish. But the car was good. I was able to hold a pretty good line around the whole track. We just missed it. It is good. In a race like this, it doesn’t matter where you start, but the prestige of pole is always something. It would have been nice.”
Wade Cunningham, who replaced Mike Conway in the No. 14 Dallara/Honda for A.J. Foyt after Conway said he no longer wanted to compete on oval tracks, qualified 23rd with a two-lap average of 209.526 mph. In the final practice, Cunningham scraped the wall in a minor crash.
“I was exploring different lines on the track and I hadn’t been that aggressive changing lanes,” Cunningham said. “I just judged it on the seams of the track and got caught out. There was someone leaving pit lane and I thought for a while I was going to get them but luckily they got on the gas and got out of my way.”
Many of his fellow IZOD IndyCar Series drivers commended Cunningham for the courage it took to admit he felt fear on the oval tracks on the series and respected his decision, although it may hamper him from competing in this series in the future.
“I look up to Mike,” Hunter-Reay said. “He was somewhere mentally that he didn’t want to be. He was man enough to say, ‘Hey, this is not working for me right now.’
“Instead of going out there and being in a bad place mentally in one of these cars, which is a very dangerous thing to do, these cars are dangerous enough, racing on a track like this is dangerous enough, but to be in a bad place mentally and do it is not right. That’s a smart decision from him. If he doesn’t feel like it, there’s other days to fight this whole thing out. He chose to do that.
“I really look up to him for that. Ovals haven’t been that nice to him either, you know, especially with Indy.”
Power also commended Conway.
“I can understand how he feels,” Power said. “If the car is not right around here, you don’t even want to be out there. Yeah, that’s ballsy to say, ‘Hey, I don’t feel comfortable.’ Full credit to him. He’s a great driver, too. He’s one of the quickest guys on the circuit. It’s just the circumstance.”