Team Penske in spotlight as it prepares run for Indy 500 pole with Larson a serious contender

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — All of the attention ahead of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is squarely on Team Penske.

Not because Josef Newgarden is the defending race winner. Or because Will Power and Scott McLaughlin have been fast all week. Or because team owner Roger Penske, who also owns the series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, hopes that one of them can deliver his record-extending 20th trip to victory lane.

It’s because of the long shadow cast by a cheating scandal at St. Petersburg, Florida, that has followed Team Penske to the Brickyard. It is a “Fast Friday” tradition for Team Penske to open the day with a meet-the-team event led by the team president and the stable of Penske drivers.

But it was altered this year and mostly a sponsor appearance. Tim Cindric is, after all, one of four employees suspended by Penske because IndyCar found the team had illegal software on all three cars in the March season-opening Newgarden victory.

Once discovered some six weeks later, IndyCar disqualified Newgarden and McLaughlin, but rivals remain suspicious as the Penske cars enter the weekend as contenders to win the pole for the 108th Indianapolis 500.

“Were we satisfied with what happened? Absolutely not. No way. Was it handled correctly? That depends on who receives the serve,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull said Friday. “But this is the Indianapolis 500, and we want to win this race.

“The less time we spend thinking about that ping-pong match, the better off we are as a team,” he continued. “Hopefully everybody learned from that. Hopefully the sanctioning body learned from that. Hopefully they do something about it going forward to make us all better. It’s amazing to me in this day and age that that happened.”

What happened has divided the paddock as Newgarden, a two-time series champion and the IndyCar poster boy, has admitted to using an additional boost of horsepower when it wasn’t permitted during his March victory at St. Petersburg, Florida.

Now he’s back at Indianapolis as the reigning winner but with opinion divided on whether Newgarden is a victim of miscommunication or a driver caught taking advantage of manipulated Team Penske software. All could be true, but the No. 2 team kept quiet when it learned he could override the push-to-pass system, and Newgarden admitted he used it illegally three times in his March victory.

He said he thought there had been a rule change and that’s why he used the push-to-pass button illegally at St. Pete. But that’s behind him and he posted the fastest four-lap engine in Friday’s practice, the day teams get a boost of horsepower to prepare for Saturday and Sunday’s two days of qualifying.

Newgarden’s opponents have their doubts about what he knew and when, but Newgarden has found the build-up to qualifying and the reception at the speedway rather warm despite two days of rain.

“The fans are — they’re great around here, you know?” Newgarden said Friday. “Everybody knows what this race means. They know the significance. They follow closely and they’re very supportive. So it’s been a fun month so far.”

Penske hopes its fun come Sunday and his three cars are qualified inside the top three rows for the Indy 500. Power at Long Beach last month was adamant that a Penske car would be on the pole for the May 26 race based solely on the work Team Penske had put into its Indianapolis program.

“I feel like we have a great shot because we’ve worked so hard. I don’t think we’ve left anything on the table,” Power said. “I’ve said that for the last five years. I haven’t said we’d be on pole. I’ve said we have a good shot. This year I really feel like we’ve put everything together. I feel like one of our cars have a great shot at pole, if not all on the front row.”

Colton Herta posted the fastest speed of the day at 234.974 mph and was followed by Kyle Larson, Newgarden and McLaughlin.

Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power had the three best four-lap averages, which is the standard used in qualifying.

The Penske trio could be challenged by Larson, the 2021 NASCAR champion attempting to run both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. He’s the fifth driver to attempt all 1,100 miles on the same day, and Tony Stewart in 2001 is the only driver to complete the feat.

He’s trying to run through his own program with Arrow McLaren Racing, which is fielding the car in conjunction with Hendrick Motorsports, rather than pick the brains of veterans or those who have done “The Double” before him.

“I’d say it’s sometimes better not knowing things. You have a lot of bad things you remember, too,” former Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon said of Larson’s reluctance to seek advice. “You’ve got to try to keep it fresh. I think that’s the fun thing about the sport, everybody chasing the same thing. It’s always kind of different.”

Once Larson locks himself into the field — spots 13 through 30 are confirmed Saturday, with a 12-driver shootout for the pole on Sunday — speedway officials are hopeful its the push needed to sell the 8,000 or so tickets that remain for the grandstands.

Should the grandstands sellout and only general admission and lawn seats remain, it wouldn’t technically meet the standards needed for Penske Entertainment to lift the local blackout on race coverage. But Penske has been under scrutiny since the end of last season by rival team owners, and the push-to-pass scandal, and a big Indy 500 and the olive branch of lifting the local blackout could earn him some goodwill.

But Larson is likely to push the crowd to capacity, especially after his nonchalant reaction to turning the fastest lap of his life Thursday.

“It definitely feels faster,” Larson said of his lap at 234.271 mph. “But it’s not like scary fast.”


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