Another session was completed Saturday morning at New Hampshire Motor Spreedway, and the Top-5 of the practice was strangely devoid of Penske Racing's three cars. Granted, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe were still in the Top 10, but with Helio Castronevesmired in 20thplace, the feeling was that there was an odd tilt to the Death Star universe without one of the prime contributors to global IndyCar domination and standings destruction.
Penske Racing had lost that je ne sais quois on the the left-hand only tracks. And don't think for a minute that the drivers haven't noticed. Are the days of Penske oval domination over for the season? Are poles on ovals, once a staple in Roger Penske's diet, now a thing of the past?
“Good question. We don't know. We've been putting so much effort (in engineering), like in the past, and some how other teams have developed another way and (improved),” said Castroneves after qualifying ninth (168.886 mph) Saturday for the Movethatblock.com 225. “This business is about working constantly. Certainly this weekend is a wakeup call for us.”
As the IZOD IndyCar Series has migrated away from the cookie-cutter 1.5 mile ovals like Kansas and Chicagoland Speedways that bulkheaded the schedule and replaced them with short ovals like NHMS and Iowa, the results have slipped for the Penske Racing camp. Castroneves, who won in Kentucky in 2010 and Briscoe, winner at Texas, have rarely been factors. in the past both could be counted on as podium contenders at every oval stop.
But has most notably affected the championship push for Power, who has gone from supreme domination on road and street courses to virtual futility on the short ovals. In the process, he has been gapped in the standings by the opportunistic two-time champ Dario Franchitti.
Franchitti won the pole in New Hampshire Saturday afternoon in convincing fashion, putting another point on Power in the 2011 championship battle. A win by the Scot or a bad outing by Power on Sunday could raise the white flag for Power's championship aspirations.
The first signs of trouble for the 2011 season were in May at the Indy 500, long a Penske signature event, where Power was the highest team finisher in 14th place, while Castroneves was 17th and Briscoe 27th after a collision with Townsend Bell in the short chute between T1 and T2. More notably, a Penske car did not lead a single lap in the event that it had won 15 times.
The team rebounded at the 1.5 mile Texas Motor Speedway with Power winning the second of the Twin 275 evening, and Briscoe placing third just in front of Castroneves. But those results would prove fleeting.
The Milwaukee Mile is a similar oval to New Hampshire at least in shape (flatter oval configuration, long straights, tight turns) and Castroneves led the Penske qualifying effort with a second spot on the grid, but the results did not translate in the race. Power was fourth in Milwaukee, with Castroneves ninth and Briscoe in P11. In Iowa, Power (fifth) and Briscoe (P10) both qualified well, but the race results did not translate for Power who ended up 21st and put a big chink in his championship hopes, with Briscoe and Castroneves placing a relatively quiet sixth and seventh at the end of the race.
It’s hard to pinpoint what we’re missing right now, but all year long we’ve been missing on the ovals and that’s been the main challenge,” said a perplexed Briscoe Friday afternoon. “All year long we’ve been struggling just to qualify in the Top-10. It’s very tight at the moment, so we’ve been working hard at picking up our game.”
Briscoe was smiling in New Hampshire after qualifying Saturday afternoon as the highest placing Penske driver in sixth.
"We've had to spend way too many hours in the engineering office in the last couple of days and it's starting to pay off," Briscoe confirmed. "We're making progress. We just need to keep heading in that direction in the race"
Castroneves was ninth in Loudon, while Power is starting in the middle of the field in 13th. On a single-groove race track like NHMS, the qualifying pace could be difficult to overcome unless it the track opens a second lane.
“Qualifying may be different, but in the race, we'll be in good shape,” said a hopeful Castroneves. “It will be interesting, it will be difficult to pass, but I feel as the track gets more rubber in, it will be a lot of fun.”
And fun has definitely been in short supply on the Penske schedule. Especially in the left-hand only section.
- Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Pippa Mann was transported to Concord Hospital after she spun and hit the wall coming out of turn two in the second practice session. Mann was treated and released but not cleared to drive pending the results of an MRI Monday in Indianapolis. The team withdrew the heavily damaged car for the weekend's event. It was the fourth spin and second crash of the weekend for Mann.
- Veteran Oriol Servia and rookie James Hinchcliffe put on a convincing show of might for Newman-Haas Racing. Servia (169.831 mph) held the pole for the bulk of the qualifying session before being pipped by Franchitti, while Hinchcliffe qualified a career-best fourth. "Both cars have been super strong since we got here so it's a good effort by everybody," Hinch said.
- Tony Kanaan qualified third, while former teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay fifth. "Man this place is hairy to try to qualify. I was right on the edge today," Hunter-Reay said. "But that is what I love about these short ovals, it takes some driving to get around these tracks. You have to lift (off the throttle), you have to counter steer, you have to catch the car...it's a lot of fun"
- Josef Newgarden (149.119 mph) powered by Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammate Bryan Clauson (147.874 mph) to seize the pole for the Firestone Indy Lights race. Newgarden has now won a pole on a road, street and an oval course this season.
- Tomas Scheckter, filling in for the injured Justin Wilson at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, qualified 18th. TScheck confirmed that he would be racing in Baltimore, but said it would not be for KV Racing as was previously circulated. "It's tough, we got a little lost with the setup. Actually, more testing for us has done the opposite," Scheckter said. "That's how these weekends go sometime. We should have a good race setup."
- Veteran NASCAR Whelan Modified driver Mike Stefanik won the series' Granite State Classic at NHMS, prevailing in a rowdy green-white-checker finish in a race dominated by prolonged cautions including a mega seven-car pileup at the start/finish line. Woody Pitkat finished second, while Todd Szegedy made a late move to finish third.
LOUDON, N.H. - Results of qualifying Saturday for the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225 IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 1.025-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway, with starting position, car number in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, and speed:
1. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 170.843
2. (2) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Honda, 169.831
3. (82) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Honda, 169.698
4. (06) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Honda, 169.590
5. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Honda, 169.570
6. (6) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Honda, 169.451
7. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 169.114
8. (5) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 169.044
9. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Honda, 168.886
10. (83) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 168.434
11. (4) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Honda, 168.047
12. (27) Mike Conway, Dallara-Honda, 167.852
13. (12) Will Power, Dallara-Honda, 167.011
14. (19) Alex Lloyd, Dallara-Honda, 166.877
15. (7) Danica Patrick, Dallara-Honda, 166.834
16. (77) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Honda, 166.809
17. (59) EJ Viso, Dallara-Honda, 166.536
18. (22) Tomas Scheckter, Dallara-Honda, 166.381
19. (14) Vitor Meira, Dallara-Honda, 166.253
20. (18) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 165.265
21. (24) Ana Beatriz, Dallara-Honda, 164.958
22. (26) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 164.722
23. (38) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 163.816
24. (34) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Honda, 162.285
25. (67) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Honda, 161.734
26. (78) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara-Honda, 157.437
27. (30) Pippa Mann, Dallara-Honda, no speed