Briscoe wins Long Beach pole, but Franchitti to start first
Ryan Briscoe kept Penske Racing perfect so far this season by winning the pole for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
He won't be there for very long.
A decision by Chevrolet to yank the engines from all 11 of its teams because of concerns the engines wouldn't last throughout the race meant all the Chevy drivers knew they wouldn't start Sunday where they actually qualified. The IndyCar penalty for unapproved engine changes is 10 spots on the starting grid, so Briscoe will actually start 11th when the green flag falls.
Defending series champion Dario Franchitti, a Honda driver, qualified fourth but will start on the pole because the top three in qualifying were Chevy drivers.
Josef Newgarden, an IndyCar rookie, leaps from seventh to second, and Justin Wilson will go from ninth to third.
After that is anyone's guess.
"I feel like we need to call in NASA to figure out who is starting where," said Chevy driver James Hinchcliffe, who qualified sixth.
"Who is starting sixth?" asked Chevy driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was third.
"I have no idea," Hinchcliffe replied.
"Who's on first?" Hunter-Reay cracked.
All humor aside, Chevrolet was proud to have five drivers qualify in the top six on what's been a trying weekend.
The engine issue was discovered after Hinchcliffe's blew up during a test session on Monday, and Chevrolet IndyCar program manager Chris Berube said the drivers "rose to the challenge of the engine change."
"We were not certain something would happen during the race, but we wanted to preserve the show, and decided it was in the best interest of all our Chevy teams, and the Long Beach Grand Prix to swap the engines out beforehand, knowing the grid penalty will be difficult to overcome in the race," he added.
With 14 total drivers being punished for engine changes - three Lotus drivers also made switches - figuring out the starting lineup is a bit of a headache. But it should make for an exciting race as some of the top talent will be mired deep in the field at a track that doesn't have too many ideal passing spots.
Asked if drivers will be forced to create places to pass, Will Power said he wasn't sure.
"I think you'll see a lot of crashing if that's the case," said Power, who qualified second but will start 12th. Two weeks ago at Barber, the Penske driver started ninth but managed to pick through traffic for the victory.
It may be harder on Sunday, when a Honda driver might finally break through with a win.
It's been all Chevrolet so far this season, as the manufacturer has dominated the qualifying sessions in its return to the IndyCar Series. Penske drivers Briscoe, Power and Helio Castroneves have won all three poles, and Castroneves won the season opener at Long Beach.
Locked out has been Honda driver Scott Dixon, who opened the year with a pair of second-place finishes and lost to Power at Barber because of a bad final pit stop. But his shot at the pole blew up Saturday when a transmission problem caused a fire in his car.
He wound up 12th in qualifying, but should jump up to fifth once the Chevrolets are moved back on the grid.
Instead, it will be teammate Franchitti, the four-time series champion, on the pole as he tries to snap out of the slump he's been in this season. Franchitti ran out of gas in the closing laps at St. Pete, qualified 18th at Barber and said he had one of the best drives of his career to finish 10th.
Now he'll be up front at the start.
"We knew we were going to be starting on the pole regardless of what time we did, but we kind of wanted to earn it," Franchitti said. "We didn't quite have it in the car."
And he had no qualms about 21-year-old Newgarden starting next to him in just his third IndyCar race.
"Josef throughout his career has proven how good of a driver he is, and he's done it again every time he's been in the car this year," Franchitti said.
"He's getting better, that's the annoying bit," chimed in Hinchcliffe.
"Yeah, exactly," said Franchitti, adding, "we've proven time and time again, whether you are a rookie or a veteran, you can screw it up just as well."
Newgarden was up for the challenge and even pondering early strategy.
"When you get opportunities in racing, you have to take advantage of them and nobody remembers why you started on the front row, they just remember the end result on Sunday," Newgarden said. "When you get luck like that, an advantage, you have to take the opportunity and that's what we're going to try to do.
"So we'll make the most of tomorrow, maybe get by Dario early. I'll probably try and pass him early, he probably won't expect that."
For Briscoe, the Chevrolet penalty had to sting as the Penske driver tried to match his teammates' performance. He didn't crack the top 10 in the first two races, but refused to complain about losing his front row starting spot.
"It bites, but we've just got to go with it, you've got to trust Chevrolet's judgment in this decision," he said. "We know we have fast cars, and we have to make sure we have reliable engines."