Simon Pagenaud has been setting the standard in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season and he helped take Team Penske to another level in qualifying for the Iowa Corn 300.
Pagenaud, a three-time winner in 2016 and the championship leader after nine of 16 completed races, won the Verizon P1 Award for the Iowa race, earning the 500th pole position in all racing disciplines in the illustrious history of Team Penske in the process. The driver of the #22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet circled the 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway oval twice at 185.855mph to capture his fifth pole position this season, seventh of his Indy car career and coveted number 500 for boss Roger Penske.
"Five hundred, how cool is that?" the 32-year old Frenchman asked while wearing a cap with '500' embroidered across the front. "It is just qualifying - we have a lot of work to do this weekend - but it certainly puts a great stamp on the work the #22 team has been doing as well as the whole Penske organisation."
All four Team Penske drivers qualified in succession following the blind draw for the order. Pagenaud benefited from being the last of the Penske quartet to make his attempt, receiving information relayed from his team-mates about track and car handling conditions.
"It is such a gamble for the engineers in this situation," he said. "You only get two laps. Conditions from this morning to the afternoon changed. It is fun when you get the car right like this on an oval. Chevy has been incredible giving us so much power and such a good aero kit. It's been comfortable and a lot more to my driving style."
Pagenaud led a Chevrolet sweep of the top eight qualifying positions. Josef Newgarden, in the # 21 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka/ECR Chevrolet, was second fastest with a two-lap average of 185.639mph. Newgarden is four weeks removed from sustaining a fractured right clavicle and bone in his right hand in a crash during the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway that was suspended by rain after 71 laps.
"It's always tough when you qualify second, you think, 'Arrrgh!'" said Newgarden, who has finished second in the past two Iowa races, "It's just really hard to qualify second. You almost wish you qualified fifth or something. That sounds really stupid, but it's always tough.
"We needed that last little bit, but it's nothing to complain about. I think we have fast cars. We've had fast cars here for the last couple years with Ed Carpenter Racing and I feel really good about our race car."
Helio Castroneves qualified third in the #3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet and will be joined on row two by rookie Max Chilton, who qualified a career-best fourth. Chilton's two-lap average speed was 185.419mph in the #8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy.
"Great job by the Ganassi guys," said Chilton, who won the 2015 Indy Lights race at Iowa. "It was nice to be the fastest [of the four Ganassi drivers], no easy feat. Really happy with that and tomorrow is what counts. I hear no one's won from pole here, so I'm obviously in the right sort of area to have a good result."
Defending race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has won three of the past four Iowa races, was uninjured in a morning practice crash in which his #28 Andretti Autosport/DHL Honda sustained minor rear-end damage. He qualified 20th in the 22-car field. The Andretti team, which has won six straight Iowa Speedway races and seven of the nine to date, struggled as a whole, with Carlos Munoz qualifying 15th, Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi 17th and Marco Andretti 19th.
Meanwhile, IndyCar and Iowa Speedway used the day to announce a two-year contract extension that will see the series return to the 0.894-mile oval through the 2018 season. The Verizon IndyCar Series has raced at Iowa Speedway each year since the facility hosted its first event in 2007, with this year marking the series' tenth race. Iowa Corn has been a sponsor of the event since its inception, making it the second-longest entitlement sponsorship in IndyCar.
"The success of our partnership with IndyCar is a testament to our partnership with Iowa Corn and our loyal race fans in Iowa," said circuit president Jimmy Small, "The Iowa Corn 300 has become a bucket-list item for race fans and we're thrilled to make the announcement now so our fans can start planning ahead for the next two epic seven-eighths-mile showdowns. We love everything that the Iowa Corn 300 has grown into and I'm proud to have them on board for two more years."
The Iowa race has become an anchor of the Verizon IndyCar Series' mid-season schedule, settling into its July date the past three years. Jay Frye, IndyCar president of competition and operations, noted the stability of the 'Fastest Short Track on the Planet' as important to the overall schedule's continuity.
"Iowa Speedway has become a staple of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule and we're happy to confirm we'll be returning here in 2017 and 2018," Frye said. "The level of competition at this track is incredible and showcases some of the best Indy car racing you'll see all year. We're thankful for the continued support from Iowa Corn and Iowa Speedway track president Jimmy Small. Both of their teams have been instrumental in making this such a strong event."
Announcement of the 2017 Iowa race brings the number of dates that have been confirmed for next season to seven, joining the previously announced St Petersburg, Long Beach, Indianapolis, the doubleheader weekend at Detroit's Belle Isle and Road America.