Simon Pagenaud has long proved his skills on street and road courses, but on Friday afternoon in Fontana, California he added a new skill to his repertoire as he claimed his first Verizon IndyCar Series pole position on a superspeedway for what will be his 18th start on an oval.
Paagenaud led a Penske front row sweep with a two-lap average speed of 218.952mph (65.7679s) at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in qualifying for Saturday afternoon's MAVTV 500. to claim his second series pole - his first was almost exactly a year ago, on June 28 at Houston. This weekend will be the tenth time in 11 races this season that he's started in the top five.
Pagenaud was just 0.0656s faster than his team mate Helio Castroneves who will join him on the front row leading the field to the green flag at the start of today's race which gets underway just after 1.30pm local time (9.30pm BST).
CLICK: Full qualifying times from Auto Club Speedway
"Thanks to my crew for the preparations and it's exciting to get a superspeedway pole," he said as he received the Verizon P1 Award after the end of the single-car time trials. "Qualifying is one thing. It's a reward for performance. We have a 500-mile race and hopefully I can reward the team for its hard work.
"It's good, we've been working really hard on the #22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet Team - it's a brand new team," said the Frenchman, who joined Penske from Schmidt Peterson Motorsport over the winter. "It's gelling really well and I'm super happy to get a superspeedway pole. It's an amazing feeling.
"It's a totally different day tomorrow," he pointed out. "This [pole] is nice, but frankly, you can win from the back in a 500-mile race. Lots of traffic tomorrow and it's going to be important to keep your tyres underneath you. Being able to run in different lanes and being smart in traffic is going to be key. And obviously there is going to be a lot of pit stops, too, so there's a lot for tomorrow. But I'm just going to take this tonight and enjoy it!"
Last year's pole winner Castroneves will have to be content with second chair this weekend, the fifth time in a row than Penske have locked out the front row in 2015.
"I'm happy, the performance was very consistent," said the Brazilian. "To be able to do two laps exactly the same shows that the car is good, and also very consistent.
"The challenge is the temperature," he added. "It's very slippery when it gets very hot. It can be very challenging. Even when you have several lanes to go, the car sometimes just wants to go one way and that's the biggest [challenge] - trying to find new lines without having any huge moments."
Having been quick in both of the day's earlier practice sessions, Marco Andretti proved to the the fastest of the Honda contingent in qualifying and the #27 Andretti Autosport car will line up in third place on the grid.
"We'll have a pretty clean view for the start here!" said Andretti. "I'm pretty excited about the race car. I'm thrilled with where we ended up in quals - but I think my race car is really solid, and thankfully we won't have to come from the back. Just really proud of everybody, we're really maximizing everything."
Andretti will be alongside Ed Carpenter in the CFH Racing #20, a big bounceback for that team which had struggled badly in the most recent previous oval race earlier in June at Texas Motor Speedway.
"We had a good qualifying run," said Carpenter, who has finished first, second and third in the past three races at Auto Club Speedway. "That was a lot better than we've been able to show on the first two ovals.
"The win and second place in Toronto gave us good momentum and the week off was really good, too," he continued. "We had been struggling on the ovals and the week off really gave us a chance to get immersed in what our problems were and come up with some good ideas to come here and get back on track. I just have to thank all the guys on the team - mechanics, engineers, everybody, for putting in the hard work to get the cars driving nice again."
Verizon IndyCar Series championship points leader Juan Pablo Montoya will start from fifth place on the grid. The Colombian won last month's Indianapolis 500 meaning that he is the only driver who can possibly pull off a 2015 Triple Crown sweep of the series' 500-mile superspeedway events if he were to win here on Saturday and then go on to find victory lane at Pocono Raceway in the penultimate event of the season on August 23.
"It was an okay run," said Montoya after posting a two-lap average of 217.250mph (66.2830s.) "I figured it would end up somewhere around fourth to sixth and we ended up fifth. The car drives really well. We can make our way to the front easily from where we are starting. It's a long race. Anything can, and probably will, happen. If we are solid on pit road all day, then we should be right there at the end."
Montoya will be starting alongside Ganassi's Tony Kanaan, who posted exactly the same time down to the thousandths of a second - 217.184mph, 66.3033s - as his team mate Scott Dixon, who will start once place further back in seventh place on the grid next to Will Power.
"With some of the changes we made between the second practice and qualifying we just missed a little," said Kanaan, who had been hoping to mount a stronger challenge for pole position. "The good thing about qualifying on a track like this one is that your starting position isn't as important as it might be on a road course. There are so many lanes to make passes and lines to take that if you have a fast race car, it won't take you long to make it back to the front."
"We missed it for some reason, so I'll have to go back and talk it over with the team as to why we were hitting the rev limiter," added Dixon. "The winds definitely picked up and the conditions were ideal. We tried to run the bottom but there was still some quick dry down on the track and it got pretty slick. Overall missing it in qualifying isn't that big of a deal and it's a 500-mile race and I know we have a good Degree Chevrolet for the race."
Reigning series champion Will Power revealed that he hadn't been focussed on qualifying this week and was prioritising race pace. "We didn't even do a qualifying sim in practice. We had a lot of push and I had to lift on the first lap so it wasn't ideal. It is a long race and we just have to have a consistent race car and make our way up front. If you're near the front in the final 20 laps, you have a chance."
AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato was the only other Honda other than Andretti to break into Chevrolet's stronghold at the top of the timesheet, with Ganassi rookie Sage Karam founding out the top ten ahead of Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport), Josef Newgarden (CFH Racing) and Charlie Kimball (Ganassi), with Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti) just pipping KVSH Racing's Sebastien Bourdais for 14th place.
"We were just a little too aggressive with the balance of the car," said Bourdais, who had been struggling for pace at Fontana all day. "We had a bit of a disjointed second practice and we didn't get through all the items we wanted to do.
"We gave it our best shot in qualifying," he added. "It was oversteering. I also made a mistake. I was freaking out a little bit on the second lap between Turn 1 and 2 and forgot to downshift into fifth gear, so we were a bit low on the RPM and that killed the second lap. It was a good effort by the Mistic guys and the Chevy power was strong again ... Now we just keep working and see what we can come up with for the race."
Having earlier topped the first practice session, Ryan Briscoe ended up a somewhat disappointing 16th place on the grid in the #5 SPM car that he is driving in place of the injured James Hinchcliffe, but he still had high hopes for the race itself.
"It's been a really good day and we had pretty high expectations for qualifying. We just didn't go as fast as we were hoping, but the car felt really good," he said. "We just had too much downforce on it. That would be a really easy fix if we were to qualify again, but I'm pretty excited about the speed we've had in practice and in race trim. I guess we've been making a habit of coming from the back and toward the front, so maybe we'll just have to do that again."
Briscoe's day was at least better than that of his team mate James Jakes, who suffered an engine failure on second practice. The team was unable to fit a new Honda unit in time for the Briton to take part in qualifying and as a result he will have to start on the back row of the grid in 23rd place.
"We had a really good car and obviously had the engine failure in practice," sighed Jakes. "The guys managed to put an engine in the car in about an hour, but it just wasn't quite quick enough to get us in line for tech. It's really disappointing but it's going to be a long race tomorrow and we've got a good car. I'm looking forward to it and I think we can get a good result."
Jakes - in common with the rest of the drivers- will have just a one-lap shakedown opportunity on Saturday morning as part of a general systems check. However the next time that the cars head out onto the Auto Club Speedway for a genuine lap will be for the start of the MAVTV 500 itself just after 1.30pm California local time (9.30pm BST).
See full qualifying times from Auto Club Speedway and MAVTV 500 starting grid positions.