Power claims the pole position for IndyCar opener

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STORY BY BRUCE MARTIN

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – New to the IZOD IndyCar Series this season is the “Verizon P1” award that goes to the pole winner of each race on the schedule. So when Team Verizon driver Will Power became the first-ever winner of the Verizon P1 Award it was only natural to ask if it were a stipulation in his contract.

“It was, otherwise I’d be fired,” the Team Penske driver quipped. “So I made sure I got it.”

Power certainly made sure of that by winning the pole for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for the fourth year in a row. He claimed the pole with the fast time in the Firestone Fast Six with a time of 1:01.3158 around the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street course.

It was the 30th pole of Power’s career.

The Team Verizon driver won the first-ever Verizon P1 Award for claiming the pole.

“It’s a very good start to the season,” Power said. “We just had to get through the fast six and look after our tires in the first two rounds then see what we could do that last one.

“That was interesting. I never knew you could make so many changes to a car through qualifying. In between each round it’s kind of hard to find a balance all weekend, but it seemed very nice on used tires. Going into the final round was kind of straightforward; just go out there and give it everything I had. I thought it was going to be very tight. It’s very tight on new tires but we made a few changes for the last run and it was good to see some new people up there. Like Simona (de Silvestro), that’s very cool but I always knew she was quick.”

It was quite a unique combination of drivers that made it to the Firestone Fast Six. Usual suspects including 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and two-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon were all missing from the drivers vying for the top six positions.

They were replaced by an unusual mix that included Takuma Sato, who is in his first race with A.J. Foyt, Simona de Silvestro, in her first race with a Chevrolet engine and her first contest as a member of KV Racing. And let’s not forget about 2012 Firestone Indy Lights Series champion Tristan Vautier, who qualified sixth with a time of 1:02.0645 (104.408 mph) in his first IndyCar start with Schmidt/Peterson Motorsports.

By comparison, Hunter-Reay qualified eighth for Andretti Autosport, Franchitti was 10th for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and Dixon was way back in 20th as a first round elimination.

That creates an interesting mix for Sunday’s race with new faces in the front and big names in the back.

“It’s always like that in IndyCar,” Power said. “You can never predict what’s going to happen.  We don’t know who is going to win, but that is the excitement of it.  Never had so much depth in the field of drivers. There are no bad drivers.  You go to the field, and you have 20 guys there.  All of these guys can win.  Given the right equipment and day, they can win races.

“I hope IndyCar gets that after how difficult this series is.  I think they need to.  I don’t think enough people know about it, you know, how many good drivers there are in this series.”

Vautier’s effort was impressive for the rookie from France as he joins fellow Frenchman Simon Pagenaud on the Honda-powered Schmidt-Peterson team.

“I was a little nervous qualifying because the last practice was not quite good, and I didn’t really know what to expect from the qualifying format and the Red tires,” Vautier said. “I really tried to take it one step at a time, first off, getting in the top 12.  Then once I was there, okay, make it to the top six.  It was good.  The Red tires were a little different, but not too much.  I feel like there is a lot of fight this weekend to get a lot of time out of the car.  Everybody has to work really hard, and I try not to do a mistake and get some laps in.  It worked well.  I think we have a very good car, and I feel good about the work with my engineer Allen McDonald and the whole team.  So that’s really cool.

“I think we have to improve on all the tires.  I have to get more consistent, and really got to focus tonight on how we’re going to be able to save the tires tomorrow and be consistent on longer runs and improve my pit stops as well, make sure I avoid the mechanics and tires when I park and then we should be fine.”

Sato’s qualifying time of 1:01.5776 (105.233 mph) was good enough to put Foyt’s Dallara/Honda on the front row for the second-straight street course race. Mike Conway was on the outside of the front row for last year’s Baltimore Grand Prix. Conway, however, did not start in that position as he took a 10-grid spot penalty for an unapproved engine change. So the last time a driver for Foyt actually started a race on the front row was Robby Gordon, who started on the outside of the three-car front row for the 2001 Indianapolis 500.

“I’m really happy to make him (Foyt) a happy day,” Sato said. “He’s a happy guy to working around, and it’s really good.  It’s made the whole team really motivated.”

De Silvestro scored her best-ever IndyCar finish in this race in 2011. Her third-place qualifying effort is a career best.

“It was pretty exciting to make the Fast Six,” she said. “I’ve never been in this position, and I was pretty nervous before qualifying because I haven’t done a qualifying run like this in a long time, so it was kind of a little bit nerve‑racking.  But each session went better.  We made a few changes every team, and really happy with P3.  It’s kind of a huge relief to be in this position.  I really have to thank everybody that’s supported me through the difficult years we’ve had so far and to make it now into starting third for the first race of the season is pretty awesome.

“I think when we wear the helmet, we all look the same and just try to do the best job we can out there. It’s a difficult sport in IndyCar.  But, for me, it’s always been really important to get the results and being a female second.  I always wanted to be a really good race car driver, and that’s what I’m aiming for.  I’m really lucky also to have people around me who saw this that way too.  That I wanted to be really competitive and try to win races and be running up front.”

James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport was fourth and defending winner Helio Castroneves was fifth – both in Dallara/Chevrolets.

Hunter-Reay was second-quick in Friday’s combined practice session but had to settle for eighth in Saturday’s qualifications.

“This morning we got aggressive with the setup and we tried some things that didn’t really work, so we went back on it for qualifying and didn’t quite hit the sweet spot,” Hunter-Reay said. “We were only a couple tenths off. Looks like we were less than a tenth off from being in the Firestone Fast Six. As usual it’s tight – if you miss it by a hair, you’re going to be on the outside looking in. Eighth is in the top 10 – we can start from there and still race for the win. Optimistic about that, just disappointed that we didn’t get the DHL Chevy into the top six.”

An extra 10 laps have been added to this year’s race making the event total 110 laps and 198 miles.

“It will create an interesting aspect,” Castroneves said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a save fuel mode run in the beginning of the race.  I believe it’s the three stops, so people are going to push or create an opportunity for a lot of racing in the beginning, so it’s going to be interesting.  Last year I did it in two stops so it is going to be very, very difficult to do which takes a little bit away from the strategy from other teams.  At the same time, it adds a little bit more challenge in the beginning of the race.  Instead of follow the leader, I do feel it’s going to be quite a more challenge.  But it’s still going to be competitive.  Firestone Tires did a great job off‑season improving the grip, and right now, tomorrow, we’re going to find out how they’re going to hold up during that scenario.  Adding ten more laps is another thing to start thinking about.”

And the pole winner expects the weather to play a factor at some point over the course of the race.

“I think it will have a lot to do with the weather,” Power said. “It depends on how the weather is, and it’s a pretty straightforward race. It’s great for us, if not, it’s going to be one of the typical mixed-up IndyCar races where no one know who is going to win. We just have to be smart and keep heading towards what we’ve wanted for a long time, which is a championship.”