Speeds varied wildly as the NTT IndyCar Series paddock began its work at Iowa Speedway with a massive 12.937 mph separating fastest from slowest in single-car qualifying, yet those that lacked pace when the grid was set for the third oval race of 2019 may have better race cars than their starting positions indicate thanks to shifting conditions and continuous fine-tuning of race cars.
While qualifying is important at every track — due in part to the bonus point it awards — the impact is historically minimal at Iowa where the pole sitter has never had a podium finish in 12 Indy car races held at the 7/8-mile track. From a championship perspective, Simon Pagenaud’s third pole of the season helps his title pursuit but doesn’t necessarily set him up for success in the race.
The situation becomes even murkier when the short two-lap burst of speed necessary for qualifying is contrasted with the long runs employed during the 300-lap race — when heat and the track’s aging surface will wreak havoc on tires and potentially negate the advantage of a decent or even seemingly ideal starting position.
Even though 2018 series champion Scott Dixon might have wished to qualify better to help put him back into contention for a sixth IndyCar title, all was not lost when the Chip Ganassi Racing driver ended up eighth on the grid.
“We tried a few different things today for qualifying and might have missed a little there,” said Dixon after his qualification attempt. “I think the PNC Bank car felt good on long runs though. Hopefully, that means we’ll be good for the race. Obviously, conditions will change and you need to keep up with that.
“It doesn’t really matter where you start here, unless you’re dead last. We’ll keep working on it and hopefully have a car to compete with tomorrow night.”
In the hourlong Friday evening practice that commenced 15 minutes before Saturday’s scheduled green-flag time, Dixon improved to fourth, placing behind two Team Penske drivers and owner/driver Ed Carpenter.
Like Dixon, Carpenter struggled in qualifying with a car that he thought might improve from the morning to the afternoon.
“The beauty of this racetrack is it has multiple lanes, so you can get to the front if you have a good car,” said Carpenter after qualifying 17th. “We’ll just have to get it right tonight in this next practice and have a strong first stint tomorrow to protect ourselves and stay on the lead lap.”
If he wasn’t a successful team owner, Carpenter may consider a career in fortune telling, given how prophetic his statement was. The 38-year-old veteran had good speed and turned 122 laps in final practice — the second most among the field of 22 drivers — and turned in the third-fastest speed. Despite starting from the inside of the eighth row, Carpenter could easily find himself moving forward if the rest of his prediction holds true and his car’s balance is better than that of the Dallara-built machines set to begin from the first seven rows.
Balance was a theme that echoed up and down pit lane throughout Friday’s two practices and qualifying. Three-time Iowa winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, one of the most decorated drivers in the track’s relatively brief history, missed the mark in qualifying due to a poorly balanced race car that put him ninth on the grid.
“We were a bit handcuffed during our run, meaning I couldn’t really shift the balance one way or the other with the tools,” said Hunter-Reay. “I was too loose mid-corner and then had big understeer really late. … There wasn’t much I could do with it. I just had to ride it out.
“We just missed the balance. It’s unfortunate, but if you have a good race car here you can make it all up.”
Even Pagenaud, having shown both outright speed in qualifying and the potential for good race pace in final practice, knows racing at IndyCar’s shortest track is never a straightforward task.
The high heat during qualifying resulted in a track temperature in excess of 130 degrees but didn’t unsettle Pagenaud’s Menards-liveried Team Penske Chevrolet enough to keep him from earning the pole. Yet with vastly different conditions expected for the race, keeping up with changing conditions became the primary task.
“It’s all about having the right balance on the race car,” said Pagenaud after securing the NTT P1 Award. “We had a good snapshot this morning of how the car was. We ran quite a bit in traffic.
“We knew we had to make some adjustments to be really strong on long runs. At the end, we did a qualifying run. … We just worked on the little details and made sure we would have enough balance and grip to go through the corner.”
Should Pagenaud and engineer Ben Bretzman make the right adjustments, the 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner might have a chance to break Iowa’s pole winner curse. He and the rest of IndyCar’s finest will find out whether they’ve got the balance figured out when the green flag flies just after 6 p.m. CDT.
Ben was hooked after witnessing Dario Franchitti's victory at the 2009 Iowa Corn Indy 250 and began attending IndyCar events as a media member in 2015. Seven years later, he remains the mastermind behind The Apex's Race Reports, and if IndyCar is on track, he can be found live-tweeting from his beloved iPad Pro.