2017 marks the 20-year anniversary since the first Indy car race at Gateway Motorsports Park. That event was held in May of 1997 and it was won by Team Penske, with Paul Tracy behind the wheel. Tracy is still involved in the event today, but as a commentator instead of an competitor. Today’s event will be broadcast on NBCSN at 9 p.m. ET and the team of Townsend Bell and Kevin Lee will join Tracy to run play-by-play and give their always-awesome insight throughout the event.
It’s never a surprise to see a domination by Team Penske, but this weekend has been especially stellar. All four cars placed 1 through 4 in the initial practice and repeated that for qualifications with a different pattern. The smallest increment between the Team Penske cars and the rest of the field was 2.2 mph and .6 of a second for the 2 lap average. In this series, that’s a HUGE difference. Many weekends, the entire field is separated by less than that.
While that spread may not be that common, Team Penske at the front of the field this season, is. Yes, I’m aware that I ended that sentence with a preposition but sometimes rules are made to be broken. You know what else is made to be broken? Track records. Will Power (No. 12 Chevy, Team Penske) did just that when he ran a qualifying average of 189. 642. He came incredibly close to hitting 190 mph, and my assumption is that with next year’s universal aerokit, and assuming we return to the St. Louis region for another great Saturday night oval race, that record will fall yet again. The previous record stood for 20 years however – set by Raul Boesel at the inaugural event in 1997 (187.963).
Power is battling his teammates and two Honda drivers (Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal) for a series championship. He won in 2014 – a season that yielded 3 wins and 5 poles for the Australian driver. He has the same number of wins in 2017 and is already on pole number 6 thanks to yesterday’s performance. I would be negligent if I didn’t remind you that this weekend’s pole win was Power’s 50th career pole. Only his teammate Helio Castroneves has as many in the current field, and only two drivers in history have earned more… Mario Andretti (67) and A.J. Foyt (53), you may have heard of them.
With those impressive 2017 stats mentioned above, Power is right on par to close in on, or surpass, his teammate Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Chevy, Team Penske) who currently leads in the championship standings.
Newgarden is determined to hold that position until the end of the finale event at Sonoma Raceway in mid-September, however. He is in the midst of his career-breakout year and wanting to top it off by hoisting the Astor Cup over his head. Newgarden has been “one-to-watch” for as long as I can remember and he’s putting on a hell of a show in 2017. 3 wins and 7 podiums have made him one of the most consistent drivers this years and that consistency is what wins championships.
That rule has oddly not worked in the favor of his teammate and principal driver at Penske, Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Chevy, Team Penske) who is still in the hunt for his first series championship after 19 completed seasons in the series, and coming to the end of his 20th. Castroneves has more experience at this track than anyone else in the field, with 5 starts and 1 win – which came at the most recent IndyCar/Gateway event in 2003. He will be making his 342nd start this evening, and he does so from the inside of Row 2 next to the reigning series champion and his teammate, Simon Pagenaud (No. 1 Chevy, Team Penske).
Pagenaud has been a black horse of sorts this season, with one pole and one win. A far cry from the domination he showed in both categories last year. He has completed every lap in the 2017 circuit though, as well as 11 Top 5 finishes out of 14 contests. You want to talk about consistency? Whoop, there it is. He sits fourth back in the championship hunt, just 26 points behind Newgarden. That win that I mentioned earlier came at Phoenix – marking the Frenchman’s first oval victory in IndyCar. Gateway is partially modeled after Phoenix Raceway, which could prove beneficial and serve Pagenaud with the repeat victory he’s been searching for this season.
While Castroneves has the experience of winning here, Pagenaud’s ‘yoda’ Gil de Ferran found victory at Gateway in 2002 with Team Penske so there could definitely be something there, giving the champ an upper-hand that could surprise many folks. That de Ferran win tallies the Team Penske victories at Gateway to three – and today, after 248 laps around this 1.25 mile oval outside of St. Louis, MIssouri, we will likely see that fourth win go to Roger and his undeniably incredible racing team.
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Photo credit: Chris Owens, IndyCar (Newgarden) – Shay Hazen, Live Full Throttle (Power, Castroneves, Pagenaud)