LONG BEACH, Calif. – If two is a coincidence and three is a trend, Helio Castroneves is a trend-setter at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
With a new track record lap of 1 minute, 6.2254 seconds (106.980 mph) in the Firestone Fast Six final round of qualifying today, Castroneves (No. 3 Auto Club of Southern California Team Penske Chevrolet) locked down his third consecutive Verizon P1 Award and pole position on the streets of Long Beach. He will lead the 21-car field to the green flag in Sunday’s second race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.
“For me today, it was interesting because the first qualifying (segment) was a little bit tough,” said Castroneves, whose 48th career pole is one shy of tying Bobby Unser for third on the all-time list. “We almost didn’t make it. (Engineer) John (Bouslog) and the rest of the guys were able to adjust the car for the next session. After that, we kept rolling.”
TOYOTA GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH: Qualifying results
Castroneves’ pole lap was nearly half a second quicker than the one he posted in the Firestone Fast Six two years ago, when he won the pole with a then-record lap of 1:06.6294 around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary circuit. Eleven of the 12 drivers in Segment 2 of today’s qualifying posted laps quicker than Castroneves’ 2015 pole time. Highlighting the parity of the Verizon IndyCar Series, five teams were featured in the Firestone Fast Six.
“I think the (Verizon) IndyCar Series is the most competitive it’s ever been at the moment, so it says a lot,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose No. 28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda (1:06.4401) qualified third. “But just great to get this DHL Honda back up to the front again. Hopefully we can have a great race tomorrow.”
Sandwiched between Castroneves and Hunter-Reay was 2015 Long Beach winner Scott Dixon, whose No. 9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda has been strong in every session this weekend and posted a lap of 1:06.4123 in the Firestone Fast Six to qualify second.
“I think the car has been strong pretty much like St. Pete,” said Dixon, who qualified second at last month’s season opener as well. “As soon as we rolled off, we changed very few things. Unlike in the past, (we had to change) everything but the kitchen sink. It’s been nice to know what to expect every time you get in the car. I think that’s definitely helped the performance for us.”
Noticeably absent from the Firestone Fast Six were 2016’s title adversaries and Team Penske teammates, Simon Pagenaud (No. 1 Menards Chevrolet) and Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet). Power was eliminated in Segment 2 with a time of 1:06.6145 and will start ninth on Sunday. Pagenaud will start from the rear of the field following a qualifying interference penalty in Segment 1, nullifying what would have been a track record lap.
Pagenaud was penalized for impeding Castroneves on a flying lap. It cost the Frenchman his two fastest laps and automatically eliminated him from advancing.
The final 30-minute practice starts at noon ET Sunday and can be found on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Coverage of Sunday’s 85-lap race airs live at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.