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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was the 55th pole position of Will Power’s IndyCar career, but the Team Penske driver still surprised himself in continuing car owner Roger Penske’s impressive run in auto racing.
In the closing seconds of qualifying Saturday for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (12:30 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN), Power knocked off teammate Josef Newgarden from the top qualifying spot.
“I was really surprised when they said, ‘P1,’ I said, ‘What?’ ” said Power, who has started on pole in eight of the past 10 races on the 1.8-mile street course. “But it was a really good lap. Awesome job, awesome job. To get pole the first race of the season is awesome. Really great start.”
The 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner’s prowess on street and road courses is well documented, but this is his first street-course pole since St. Petersburg two years ago, after Team Penske’s strength on ovals last season didn’t translate on street and road circuits.
“Chevrolet has done a fantastic job with the engine,” Power said. “Our street course performance was not good enough last year. It’s great work from the whole team. We worked hard to get the result.”
Power has two wins at St. Petersburg, most recently in 2014 when he won the championship, but his fortunes in the season opener have been less than stellar lately. In 2016, he wasn’t cleared to race at the track after a wreck in practice.
He crashed and finished 19th in 2017 after starting on pole and finished 10th last year after qualifying second.
“You have to remember it’s a long race: 110 laps,” Power said. “I wasn’t smart last year. Being on pole really helps. We’ll get through the first turn and try to win another race.”
Newgarden made it a 1-2 qualifying effort for Penske, which also has won eight of the past 15 races in NASCAR’s premier series. Ryan Blaney qualified on pole Friday for Sunday’s Cup race at ISM Raceway.
“I’m only disappointed in myself,” Newgarden said. “I didn’t put together the best lap when it counted. (With a) 1-2, we can’t be dissatisfied, but it’s hard to not be disappointed when you’re quick.”
Other drivers who advanced to the Fast Six were rookie Felix Rosenqvist, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi.
Dixon, who still is seeking his first victory at St. Pete, nearly failed to advance after spinning in the first round, but a penalty to Takuma Sato put Dixon back in pole contention. Rosenqvist, Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, also benefited from a penalty to Colton Herta (for impeding Charlie Kimball) that put him in the Fast Six.
Some big names were knocked out early in the session, particularly two in Group 1 that was slowed by two red flags.
With limited time to post a fast lap, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was seventh and just missed advancing.
“What can I do?” Pagenaud, who is coming off a winless 2018, told NBCSN with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot of positives out of this weekend. I’ve worked really hard this winter for this moment. It’s disappointing. But I’m in a good space. We have a good race car and tomorrow we’ll be strong.”
Sebastien Bourdais, the two-time defending winner of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, also will start from near the rear of the field, but at least it’s a familiar feeling. The Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan driver won on this circuit from the 21st starting position in ’17 and 14th last year.
“It’s going to be our only way of doing it,” Bourdais told NBCSN. “It’s just a shame. I feel we owe it to the fans and everybody to show something that is representative. The rules don’t provision something like that with barely any green-flag time. I feel really bad. I guess we should have gone right away. But we have plenty of sticker tires, red and black, for the race.”