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An all-Penske Indy 500 front row? Will Power knew it

Written by Archie O’Reilly

“We’ve got the car for it this year. We have the car for it this year. I would be shocked if one of our cars is not on pole. We’ve worked hard. It’s finally all come together. Unless something strange happens, I think one of our cars will be on pole.”

Will Power knew it. Four weeks prior, he knew it.

In the press conference preamble after qualifying second on the streets of Long Beach, the 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner was insistent that one of the three Team Penske cars would be on pole position for the 108th running at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). 

He even went as far as saying a first Penske front row lockout since 1988 could be on the cards, despite the team not having had a driver start higher than 11th since eventual victor Simon Pagenaud took pole in 2019.

“I feel like we have a great shot,” Power went on to elaborate. “I don’t think we’ve left anything on the table. I’ve said that for the last five years… I haven’t said we’d be on pole, I’ve said we have a good shot. This year I really feel like we’ve put everything together. 

“I feel like one of our cars has a great shot at pole, if not all on the front row. I hope so.”

And how right he proved to be.

Qualifying day at Long Beach, as Power spoke, came 10 days on from the annual April Indy 500 Open Test, which was severely hampered by rain. The opening day was curtailed before the second was cancelled. But there was still enough time for Power to log 43 laps as part of a combined 136 laps turned by the Penske trio. 

The team’s defending Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden, as has almost become customary in recent years, topped the speed charts. But a lot of the running was done in groups and with drafts - not all that representative of the lonesome qualifying runs. 

It is quite remarkable that, from such limited running in unrepresentative conditions back in April, Power could seem to tell so clearly, and be so adamant, that Penske would sweep the front row as they ended up doing last weekend. Beyond the punctuated test time in April, the hard work that Power spoke of the team putting in was evidently vindicated.

“I did read the script,” Power further said last month. “It says that I’ll be on pole, so there we go. They had [Kyle Larson] in there as pole. I got in there and politicked and got it changed. He’s NASCAR, sorry. I’m changing the script.”

The script did not go exactly to plan as Power’s fourth-year teammate Scott McLaughlin bettered a previous best Indy 500 qualifying finish of 14th from last year to snatch pole with the final run of Pole Day. It meant Power had to settle for his third second-place but fourth top three qualifying finish in five races in 2024.

“I definitely like second place this year,” two-time series champion Power, currently second in the standings after three second-place finishes in four races, said. “It’s just every single weekend it’s either second in the race or second in qualifying. So I’ll continue that for the rest of the year, maybe I’ll get a championship.”

Power’s prediction from a month prior that the pole run would be averaging in the 235 mile per hour range, with a fastest average lap speed in the 236s, also did not quite come to fruition. But with the cars decked out with lighter parts in anticipation for the introduction of the hybrid power unit at Mid-Ohio in July, McLaughlin did notch the fastest-ever pole speed.

“That was a gnarly run,” McLaughlin said. “It was so cool.”

The Kiwi’s four-lap average of 234.220 mph marginally exceeded the record set by Alex Palou with a 234.217 mph run last year. Palou broke into the 235 mph range on his opening lap but failed to maintain the same consistency that McLaughlin did, running in the 234 mph range before a 233.816 mph final lap.

McLaughlin’s run is almost as close as you can get to Indy perfection. All three Penske machines looked remarkably balanced and compliant, even able to improve as some qualifying runs progressed. McLaughlin claimed he was getting loose at the end of his pole run but that was scarcely visible as he ousted second-place Power by 0.303 mph.

There was only 0.71 mph of drop-off from McLaughlin’s first lap - clocked at a 234.526 mph average speed - to his fourth lap. The average speed of his four-lap run was roughly four miles an hour quicker than those that made it onto the final row via Last Chance Qualifying. 

The difference between Power’s first and final laps on his second-placing Fast Six run being only 0.309 mph, as he improved from his third lap to fourth, further evidenced the consistency achieved by Penske across runs that nobody else could match.

“To execute the way we have as a team, that’s what’s really cool,” McLaughlin said. “You see the time and then it’s all about just executing. After that you’re figuring out: ‘Okay, what was the car doing and what do you think the car is going to do the next lap?’ So you are playing with bars and weight-jacker and trying to hold on to it. 

“We all have been really working that and understanding it and I was glad I was able to put it to the test when it mattered the most.”

The Penske drivers looked extremely in control of their cars from the instant they emerged on track in qualifying trim on Fast Friday. In the Peacock booth, Townsend Bell described only the second run of the Friday, which came from Newgarden, as a “mic drop” moment that would cause a “gulp” from the rest of the field

And by the conclusion of Fast Friday running, Bell’s comments would be validated. Newgarden led a one-to-three for Penske on the four-lap average charts, ahead of McLaughlin and Power. It was an ominous scene heading into qualifying.

“We would have been scratching our heads if we weren’t on pole this time, or fighting for it,” Power said. 

Everything that could have gone well did for Penske. All three drivers drew favourable early slots in terms of Saturday’s qualifying running order, with McLaughlin rolling out second, Power ninth and Newgarden 10th - all in the day’s best conditions amid cooler early-day temperatures. 

And, from only their single guaranteed run each, the Penske drivers again held one-two-three by the end of the day. Power topped the speed charts ahead of McLaughlin and Newgarden, with only Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi getting particularly close to challenging the trio across the entire six hours and 50 minutes of allotted time.

Essentially, Penske ran early, put their cars away and were able to spend the day relaxing in the bus lot as others frantically tried to either make the field or progress to the Fast 12. And they stayed exactly where their sole runs put them. But not everybody was happy.

“I would like to have run in the heat,” Power said. “But Roger [Penske] didn’t want us to go out.”

Other teams, even if safely locked into the Fast 12, opted to run again in the mid-afternoon heat in order to experience conditions similar to those that would be apparent in the fight for pole one day later. But Penske team owner Roger Penske preferred his team preserved their equipment.

Power was still not content in the Pole Day practice session, in which he had a plenum event amid Chevy trying to find a fix for engine cuts from Saturday and finished 11th in the speed charts from 11 runners. He further said it was “a bad decision” not to run again on Saturday and the outlook suddenly seemed bleak for the battle for pole. 

But doubts were soon erased.

As soon as the Penske cars emerged on track at the end of the Fast 12 session courtesy of their finishing positions one day prior, it was clear that Saturday’s service was resumed. McLaughlin was top Penske for the first time since the qualifying boost was added on Friday, ahead of Power and Newgarden - the order that would persist come the Fast Six.

It did briefly look as though Rossi could spoil the Penske party with a first lap over 234 mph in the final session. But he had to settle for best of the rest again as the Penske drivers managed to match his efforts and more.

Newgarden notched two laps in the 234 mph range to leapfrog Rossi before Power got the jump on his teammate with his exceptional consistency across the run after only his first lap broke the 234 mph barrier. But McLaughlin’s unbeatable triple-234 run was still to come as he secured pole and Penske’s front row lockout with the final run of pole day.

“I think to do it now with these two boys but also [at] Roger’s house… I think we’re all really happy for Roger,” McLaughlin said. “It’s been a tough few years, at least with the car speed. Josef winning last year was fantastic but a lot of the objective was to bring faster cars. And we certainly have. So proud of the effort.”

For the third day in succession on Pole Day, the order of the Penske drivers was flipped. Newgarden was quickest on Friday, Power on Saturday then McLaughlin when it really mattered on Sunday. The driver of the No.3 Chevy became only the second New Zealander to win pole for the Indy 500 after Scott Dixon. 

This absence of any real disparity between the Penske cars is unusual and very difficult to achieve. The majority of teams often end up having one car that stands out above the rest given just how intricately the need to be set up.

“For me the emphasis really comes to the team because to put three cars at that level of speed is incredibly difficult,” Newgarden said. “I don’t think there’s another team in this paddock that can have their cars stacked as tight as we’ve had them. I can’t tell you how difficult it is…

“One day your car is the quickest, and the next day it’s not. To have them as close as we’ve had them is very difficult to do. It’s impressive. It’s very, very impressive.”

This sentiment was echoed by Power, who said the Penske cars “have been the closest they’ve ever been” during his time at the team. He attributed this to the “quality control that we have” at Penske. And the comments made by the drivers about the hard work put into bringing about improvement are clearly not unfounded.

It takes a lot of work for teams to take a stock Dallara DW12 and build it up to a point where it can average 234 mph across 2.5 miles, which makes Penske’s achievement of locking out the front row - in arguably IndyCar’s most competitive moment ever - all the more impressive.

“It just blows my mind how many things you have to do to be fast here,” Power said. “To put it in perspective, if you put a standard Dallara that looks exactly the same as our cars and all the cars on the grid, it would be about 10 miles an hour slower than what we run. That’s how ridiculous it is. There’s so much work you have to do to get to this speed.”

And it has not been a straightforward last month for Penske either. In the aftermath of Long Beach, they learned about a push-to-pass breach in St. Petersburg that saw Newgarden stripped off his win and McLaughlin disqualified from third. Heading to IMS for the road course race, action was then taken to suspend several key personnel. 

This has left Newgarden and Power without their strategists Tim Cindric (also team president) and Ron Ruzewski (also managing director), plus Newgarden without his race engineer Luke Mason. But the drivers have continually hammered home just how much depth the team boasts and the operation has still been smooth-running this month.

“We’ve got good people, a very well-run team,” Power said. “That was a mistake that happened and we moved forward pretty quickly.”

Collaborative effort is more important in the Indy 500 than any other race given the meticulous, year-long preparation and extortionate amount of scheduled practice time to get the cars prepared to run at up to around 240 mph in qualifying and operate perfectly for 500 miles on race day.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are,” Newgarden said. “You can’t will the car faster through ability. It is a team effort at Indianapolis.”

The turnaround has been stark in qualifying this year. Since Pagenaud’s pole five years ago, when all four cars at that point were in the top 12 in qualifying, it had been a rocky four years in qualifying at the Speedway, coinciding with the introduction of the aeroscreen in 2020.

Newgarden was the best-placed in 13th place in 2020, with Power, Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves all buried in the 20s. It got even worse in 2021, with McLaughlin the highest Penske car in 17th on debut and Newgarden 21st, Pagenaud 26th and Power 32nd after escaping from Last Chance Qualifying.

There was minor improvement in 2022, with Power 11th and Newgarden 14th, albeit McLaughlin started on the third-last row in 26th. Further improvement came with Power 12th, McLaughlin 14th and Newgarden 17th, from where he won, last year. But the leap this year has been dramatic still.

If their drivers cooperate, there is every chance Penske could control the race across 200 laps on Sunday.

“We’ve been working for this for the last three, four years,” Newgarden said. “We’ve certainly not had an easy time in qualifying and trying to regain the speed that we had lost probably since 2019. It’s just been a non-stop effort ever since that point. We hadn’t turned the page and I think today is really the first time we’ve turned the page.”

Several years of effort has amounted to the weekend’s qualifying feat, only matched once in the history of the illustrious Penske name.

“Every year we show up we feel like we’ve put in as much effort as we can,” Newgarden said. “So when you go that many off-seasons combing every detail, they’re bound to add up. When you compile a couple of new things with three years prior of just stacking little details together, it’s hundreds of items. It’s not that there was one magic bullet.”

There were some other factors beyond Penske’s own hard work too. Power has claimed “everyone else had something taken away” by a changed rule regarding push rods and a part that Penske was not using that others were gaining an advantage from. 

Team Chevy have also made well-documented improvements, ousting Honda in the hard-fought engine war in terms of the pure pace delivered in qualifying weekend. All of the top eight starters for Sunday’s race are Chevy-powered.

“It was a few things,” Power said. “The push rod was one - that was a gain for us. I was the only of the Top 12 last year that didn’t have that and that might be half a mile an hour. Chevy worked hard in the offseason - that was a gain. All the other little details we did, including working with Foyt was a little bit of it.”

Power’s final point related to the technical alliance Penske have forged with AJ Foyt Racing, who have renowned engineer Michael Cannon’s expertise onboard, which has aided back-to-back top six qualifying finishes for Santino Ferrucci in the Indy 500. Colton Herta even went as far as joking the alliance was “a cheap way to hire Michael Cannon” for Penske.

“It did provide just a little bit of information,” Power said. “It certainly wasn’t a big chunk of what we have done here… We weren’t missing a big chunk - just a couple of little things, as it is around here.”

McLaughlin added that the partnership felt like it offered “a confirmation of a couple of things” from Penske’s side.

Pole-sitter McLaughlin now looks as at home on ovals as he ever has done after three complete seasons in IndyCar since his move over from V8 Supercars. It is a vastly different discipline that was bound to take some getting used to, though a podium on his oval debut at Texas Motor Speedway offered proof that this would not take too long.

Winning the NTT P1 Award at World Wide Technology Raceway last year, pipping Newgarden - winner of the four prior oval races in 2023 - felt like a visible step to an even higher level on ovals. And an Indy 500 pole position only adds further to the astounding nature of his ascension through the previously unfamiliar open-wheel ranks.

McLaughlin, who continues to cement himself as one of the best race car drivers in the world, said it may “take a while to sink in” and he even took to the IMS grandstands after nightfall to take everything in on Sunday.

The progress on the oval side has been a credit to his willingness to learn, whether through watching video footage or tapping into the knowledge of his teammates, plus the presence of Rick Mears, one of the four four-time Indy 500 winners, at Penske.

McLaughlin now gets to lead the Indy 500 field to green in the iconic Pennzoil colours of Mears, who has almost acted as a mentor of McLaughlin’s since his switch to IndyCar. Last week, Mears surprised McLaughlin with a tribute firesuit during a photoshoot.

“I actually didn’t know the suit was happening,” McLaughlin said. “ It was a surprise when we were shooting with the ‘84 car, which was so cool. I take a lot of pride in working with Rick, which we all do from Team Penske… I’ve been trying to figure out red gloves and red boots, stuff to match with how Rick looked. 

“A couple of people have said I’ve got to wear aviators like him, but I can’t pull aviators like Rick Mears can.”

Mears was on pole for the last all-Penske front row at IMS 36 years ago. And a fascinating quirk is that Mears was driving the ‘Yellow Submarine’ as McLaughlin was, while 1988’s second-place starter Danny Sullivan was a one-time Indy 500 winner like Power and third-place starter Al Unsur was the defending winner like Newgarden.

“I’ve got to stay a little neutral within the team,” Mears said. “But it would be kind of nice to see that Yellow Submarine in Victory Lane.”


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