Helio Castroneves shattered the lap record he set a year ago on the 1.022-mile oval in qualifying for the 2017 Phoenix Grand Prix. It earned the 41-year-old Castroneves his second pole position in four races this season and the 49th of his 20-year Indy car career – tying the Team Penske driver with another legend, Bobby Unser, for third on the all-time list.
Driving the No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet in windy conditions under the lights, Castroneves averaged 194.905 mph (37.7538 seconds) for his two laps, including a record-setting circuit of 18.8701 seconds (194.975 mph). Castroneves will lead the 21-car field to the green flag in Saturday’s 250-lap race.
“People don’t realize that qualifying is extremely difficult,” Castroneves said. “I took it to the limit – I had one eye closed and one eye open. Experience is a big part of this and today was really, really good.
“The conditions were really difficult today in practice; the gusting winds were horrendous. We worked mostly on the race setup (in practice). My engineer (Jonathan Diuguid) did a phenomenal job and obviously, everybody at Team Penske. The REV Group car was really fast. Qualifying is one thing, the race is another, but I’m really confident going into tomorrow.”
Castroneves led a Chevrolet sweep of the first five qualifying positions. Teammate Will Power, winner of the two Verizon P1 Awards that Castroneves hasn’t collected this season, qualified second with a two-lap average speed of 194.017 mph (37.9266 seconds) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.
“It’s kind of tough going early (in the qualifying order), so I was very apprehensive to go wide open on that first lap,” Power said. “Helio actually ran a little less downforce that me – so he trimmed more – so he was really fast.
“We’ll see what we can do (in the race). Castroneves can be second and I’ll be first. That’d be nice.”
JR Hildebrand broke the Team Penske stranglehold by qualifying third in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet (193.912 mph). The career-best effort came a week after Hildebrand sat out the race at Barber Motorsports Park while a broken bone in his hand sustained three weeks ago at Long Beach healed enough for him to be medically cleared to drive.
“The car’s been good from the (February open) test to rolling out here in practice and I had a good, strong run there,” said Hildebrand, whose best previous qualifying effort was fourth at Iowa Speedway in his rookie season of 2011. “It’s so difficult to pick your downforce level in these kinds of varied conditions. We saw Helio and those guys roll out with a little less (downforce) than where we were at. But looking towards the race, I think our cars are really good in race trim.”
Team Penske drivers Josef Newgarden, the winner last week at Barber, and reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud locked down the fourth and fifth positions in qualifying. Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing, a two-time winner at Phoenix (2003, ’04), was the top Honda qualifier, sixth overall in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda. Scott Dixon, the race winner a year ago when the Verizon IndyCar Series returned to Phoenix following an 11-year absence, qualified eighth in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Sebastien Bourdais, the championship points leader following the first three races, qualified 10th in the Dale Coyne Racing No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda.