Penske places as much priority on Indy 500 qualifying as the race

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INDIANAPOLIS – As if there was any doubt about his priorities in any aspect of the Indianapolis 500, legendary owner Roger Penske couldn’t be more clear about his expectations for qualifying this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We have to be at the front,” Penske said Friday.

He didn’t hesitate to remind that Team Penske’s illustrious history of accomplishing the unprecedented goes beyond just a record 17 Indy 500 wins.

“When you look at numbers, if you’re interested in numbers,” Penske said, “we’ve got 17 wins, 17 poles and 17 pit stop contests (victories), so I guess it’s pretty important.”

Reporters laughed. The Hall of Famer smiled.

“I was prepped before I came,” Penske said.

Although he hasn’t celebrated an Indy 500 pole since Ryan Briscoe in 2012, Penske has had 45 cars on the front row in five decades at IMS. There’s a strong chance that number could grow for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 26.

Helio CastronevesTeam Penske is once again fielding four of the strongest Chevrolet-powered entries with three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves (shown at right) and three NTT IndyCar Series champions in defending race winner Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden. Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, won the INDYCAR Grand Prix on Saturday on the IMS road course. Newgarden, the 2017 series champion, is leading the points this season.

Power, Pagenaud and Newgarden ranked 1-2-3 on the combined speed chart after three days of practice. Castroneves wasn’t far off, in eighth.

“We’ve always had the best drivers,” Penske said. “To me, the time and effort we put into Indianapolis is so important. Over the years, we’ve built our brand around Indy. You think about the notoriety we get from competing here and being successful. It’s amazing.”

Then he threw out another number.

“We’ve led 2,300-plus laps here, so that’s over 11 (Indianapolis 500) races,” he said. “It isn’t just the race you win, but it’s the consistency of the team leading laps which I think has given us the success.”

Pagenaud qualified second and Power third for last year’s race. Although Power has never won the Indy 500 pole, he has qualified first for 56 Indy car races, which ranks second in series history to Mario Andretti’s 67.

A year ago, Power became the 12th different Penske driver to win the Indy 500.

“There’s obviously a lot of legends on there,” Power said. “It’s hard to believe your name is amongst those people because in my mind they’re always above me, no matter how much I win or how many 500s I win. They’re people you looked up to as a kid. They’re related to you and always will be.”

At the top of that list is Rick Mears, who joins A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as the race’s only four-time winners. The other Penske winners are Castroneves, Unser, Mark Donohue, Gil de Ferran, Emerson Fittipaldi, Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Unser.

Mears won a record six poles for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with Team Penske. The last time an owner swept the front row for this race? Penske with Mears, Sullivan and Unser in 1988. Mears is still a visible team fixture as driver coach and Turn 3 spotter for Castroneves.

Castroneves, who last raced full time in the series in 2017, has won four poles. Nobody is more excited to be back for this race than the 44-year-old Brazilian, who much to the amusement of teammates was losing his voice Friday.

“The voice is gone, so it’s probably better for the entire team because I’m quiet,” Castroneves said.

Mears, who spots for Castroneves, shook his head at the thought of trying to communicate with such an enthusiastic driver on mute.

“I’ve never experienced that yet,” Mears said. “It’s a new day. Believe me, when it comes time, he’ll be able to.”

Nobody is more excited to be here than Castroneves. Except, perhaps, his boss.

Penske reminds he first came to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with his father in 1951. He can’t wait to return each May.

“I take my ‘vacation’ here,” Penske said, “so I can have fun.”

Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying takes place over two days at IMS. First-day qualifying on Saturday locks in the first 30 positions in the field. It streams from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. ET on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold, with NBCSN taking over coverage from 5-6 p.m. Second-day qualifying on Sunday airs from noon-3 p.m. on NBC and features the Last Row Shootout and Fast Nine Shootout.

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