FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — The Southern California heat did nothing to slow Team Penske.
Simon Pagenaud earned his second career IndyCar pole and teammate Helio Castroneves finished right behind him, giving Team Penske the top two spots in qualifying on a hot Friday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway.
“It’s awesome to get the opportunity to run up front on ovals,” Pagenaud said. “Team Penske and Chevy are giving me the opportunity to do so. The car feels great.”
The Fontana race had been at night and served as the season finale each of the past three seasons, but a date change threw a wrench into car setups and driving conditions on the 2-mile oval.
Though there was cloud cover and smoke from nearby wildfires, temperatures were in the low 90s for Friday’s qualifying, making it more essential for drivers to find the right seams on the track.
“It’s very slippery when it’s hot, becoming very challenging,” said Castroneves, a three-time pole winner at Fontana. “Even when you have several lanes to go, the car just wants to go one way. And that’s the biggest one, trying to find your lines without having any huge moments.”
Pagenaud was one of the first drivers to go out and set the mark no one could match, posting a two-lap average of average of 218.952 mph to earn the pole for Saturday’s 500-mile race. The four-time IndyCar winner earned his first career pole at Houston last season after taking a bit of a backseat to some of his high-profile Penske teammates most of the season.
“In terms of performance, we’ve been so strong all season and my guys have not been rewarded yet,” Pagenaud said. “It’s good for them to get a red hat and enjoy it tonight, then get back to work tomorrow morning.”
Team Penske has dominated the series from the start of the season, when Juan Pablo Montoya won at St. Petersburg and the team had four of the top five spots in the series opener. Montoya went on to win the Indianapolis 500 for the second time and Penske entered Fontana with three of the top four spots in points, led by Montoya.
Montoya finished fifth in qualifying, behind Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter, to give Penske five of the top six spots. Penske’s Tony Kanaan, the winner at Fontana last year, qualified seventh and Will Power, second in points entering the race, was eighth.
That gives Penske a good shot to win at a track where it has struggled to take the checkers; Power has the team’s only win at Fontana, in 2013.
“As every year comes by, obviously there is some challenge,” Castroneves said of the track. “In this heat we’re going to face tomorrow and we faced today, we’re going to see some cars going forward and some cars backward.”
Andretti gave Honda a needed boost with his qualifying run.
Chevrolet has dominated the series all season and its cars had seven of the top eight spots in qualifying. The lone non-Chevy was Andretti’s Honda after he finished a second behind Pagenaud to earn a spot on the second row next to Carpenter, who has finished first, second and third over the past three races at Fontana.
“It means a lot to be up there,” the Andretti Autosport driver said. “Those first two (Pagenaud and Castroneves) were really good laps, but we maximized everything. I’m even happier about the race car, that’s the main thing. If we were third and I wasn’t happy with the race car, I wouldn’t be very happy. But it’s going to be a long race.”
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, third in points heading into the Fontana race, finished sixth.
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