Even With Rare Weekend, Penske Drivers Not Worried About Future

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – Now that the dust has settled on the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, we can now look back and reflect on what was the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete. The 110 Lap race seemed very, very interesting all the way though. It was almost like it was open for the taking the whole way. It was also a hard race to figure out.

Yes, Robert Wickens led a race-high 69 laps, but it seemed like it was still very much wide open for the taking. I think it was all because of all of the early race incidents and how many cars were affected by problems throughout the course of the afternoon. I mean, just look at the top finishers. Sebastien Bourdais had a flat tire on Lap 1. Graham Rahal had a Lap 6 incident with Spencer Pigot. Ryan Hunter-Reay had an electrical problem before he even took the green. Scott Dixon got in a crash and sped on pit road. Those are three of the top six finishers. 

Throw in Team Penske’s all around struggles and you get why the stability of the race didn’t seem normal.

Josef Newgarden practicing on the streets of St. Pete – IndyCar Media Site

Normally, the race would be a Penske show. They’ve won seven of the last eight poles on the streets of St. Pete heading into last weekend and three of the last four races.

But, they never really were strong contenders. Everyone took notice too. Would this be the year the Penske recent reign ends?

Well, if you really take a step back and look at how their weekend went and then listen to what they had to say after the race, you’ll see that maybe this was just a rare off weekend for the bunch.

Will Power was eighth, third and third respectively in the three practice sessions, then qualified his No. 12 Chevrolet second. But, he made a rare mistake on the opening lap and spun. He had to play catch up the rest of the day and finished 10th.

“It was pretty wild at times,” Power said. “It was actually good racing at times, and you can get close to people. It is a good car to race. I was on the back foot from the very beginning. (Robert) Wickens and I touched in Turn 1 and I spun around. There wasn’t a lot of room. That set us back and we fought the rest of the day. The field is just very, very competitive. There are good cars all through the field with many teams. But you can race close to people. You don’t get a draft, but you can almost get right behind them. They did a good job of making the kit with almost zero tow, so it makes the racing better I think. Not a perfect day, but we have a good Verizon Chevrolet team, and we will come back ready to race at Phoenix.”

Simon Pagenaud was the worst of the bunch, as he brought his No. 22 Chevrolet home 13th. He previously had four straight top five finishes in the season opener, including a runner-up the last two years. But, a faulty pit gun cost him a shot at a better result. He feels without that early pit road problem, he too would have been higher up the finishing order.

“It was a hard-fought day,” said the Frenchman. “We had a tire gun problem on the first stop and I feel bad for the Menards crew. That’s a tough thing to happen and they did such a good job on the next two stops. Unfortunately, that put us back in the pack and we just couldn’t make up ground from there. I expected more tire degradation and that might have created some opportunities, but that never happened. It’s definitely not the start to the season that we wanted but we know the Menards Chevrolet is good and we know we will bounce back strong.”

Defending series champion Josef Newgarden had his fair share of troubles too. He finished the best among the trio in seventh, and thinks that without a flat tire slowing him down, he for sure would have challenged for his first career St. Pete podium.

“It was a messy P7, but for us it was a good top 10,” said Newgarden. “It’s a decent start to the year. We had a great Chevy package – it’s just sad we couldn’t take better advantage of it. I felt we had really good power today from Chevrolet. The Hitachi car, overall, was pretty strong. We were just fighting all day to catch back up and we were on the wrong end on the fuel mileage and getting run into and cutting the tire didn’t help us. But I think if a couple of things would’ve gone differently, I really think a podium finish was in the cards for today.”

Newgarden, finished eighth last year and still won the championship. Now, he finished one spot better.

But, I think it was a matter of perception for fans this weekend. The Penske’s started second, 11th and 13th, but if not for a spin by Pagenaud, he would have been higher up. Newgarden, barely missed the second round in knockout qualifying. The past two years, they had started 1-2-3-4. This year it was 2-11-13.

In practice, they were 7-8-15, 3-5-13 and 2-3-6. The speed never seemed there. That’s why the finishes seemed like they were completely off. But, if you take a bigger look at it, without an early race spin for Power, a faulty pit gun for Pagenaud and flat tire for Newgarden, all three likely finish in the top five.

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