IOWA 300 PREVIEW: Penskes are 1-2-3, but only one is smiling

Photo: Will Power speaks during the media session after Friday’s qualifying.

By John Bohnenkamp

NEWTON — The Team Penske drivers qualified 1-2-3 for Saturday’s Iowa 300 IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway.

The pole winner, Simon Pagenaud, was happy.

Will Power, on the outside of the front row, was not.

“Is it any surprise?” Power said with a bemused look. “It’s just this season.”

Neither was Josef Newgarden, starting third.

“We’re third,” Newgarden said. “It wasn’t good enough.”

The Penske cars have always been fast on this .875-mile oval, but actually winning a race here has been difficult. Helio Castroneves won in 2017, and that’s it for the team. Newgarden won in 2016, but that was with Ed Carpenter Racing.

This was the eighth pole for a Penske driver in the 13-year history of this event, but it guarantees nothing. Power has five of those poles, and his average finish in those races is 8.4. The average finish of a Penske pole winner here is 7.6.

“I’m not big into stats, so…,” Newgarden said.

So there’s that.

Pagenaud’s smile was uneasy. His average speed was 180.073 miles per hour, almost a half-mile an hour ahead of Power, but this track that gets bumpier by the year nearly nipped him.

“This joint is intense,” he said. “Still shaking.”

The Penske cars were 1-2-3 in the morning practice — that order went Newgarden-Pagenaud-Power — so what happened later in the afternoon during Friday’s qualifying wasn’t a surprise.

Power even admitted through not the best of moods that it wasn’t a bad day.

“It actually was pretty good,” he said. “The car was pretty good. Actually, all three cars were pretty good. Just a very little amount I missed out by.”

The Penskes all need something good this weekend.

Newgarden leads the series with 434 points, four points ahead of second-place driver Alexander Rossi and third-place driver Pagenaud.

Pagenaud has surged into contention since May, when he swept at Indianapolis, winning the Grand Prix and then the 500. He’s coming off a win last week at Toronto, and a good Saturday night here makes this an even more interesting championship race.

“I won Indy,” Pagenaud said. “So you can’t be disappointed with anything. You can’t complain about anything. Just keep going. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re refreshed, ready to go.”

Power has just three podium finishes this season — a third-place finish in the series opener at St. Petersburg, a third-place finish in the second race at Detroit, and a second-place run at Road America. But he hasn’t won in the last 13 races.

Someone asked him what it’s like to be on a run like Pagenaud is doing right now.

“I haven’t been on a roll like that in a long time,” Power said. “It’s felt amazing when things go your way. I don’t know how you get it.”

He looked toward the ceiling in some search for spiritual intervention.

“If you’re listening, please, just give me a chance,” Power said, raising his hand above.

Then he smiled, his best mood on the dais.

This track seems to be good to Power on qualifying day before stinging him after the green flag falls on race day. He has just one top-three finish, three top-fives, and six top-10s in 10 races.

“I enjoy this place,” Power insisted. “I do. I’ve been trying to win here for a long time. I would love to win a race here.”

He will be on the front row, although it doesn’t take long to catch the back of the field.

“You’re in lapped traffic all of the time,” Power said. “You have to be good at getting through traffic.”

And that’s how you win here. Saturday will be hot, the track will be slippery. Tire degradation was a popular topic all throughout Friday, and it will make a difference in the 300 laps of the race.

“Good cars go forward, bad cars go back,” Power said.

Pagenaud has never won here. He has led all of the 13 laps in seven starts, and he’s finished in the top five only twice.

“It’s a tough track,” he said. “Tough track.

“I love Iowa. It’s a bullring.”

Newgarden and Power came to the media center first. Power was quickly moving toward the door as the question-and-answer session concluded.

“I rest my case,” he said to Newgarden, who was right behind him.

The two drivers, and their teammate, were fastest on Friday.

Being fast on Saturday will be about who makes their case the best.

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