LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Simon Pagenaud sat down between Will Power and Graham Rahal ready to discuss his best qualifying event of the season.
"I'm still here," Pagenaud defiantly declared.
And with that, personality and panache poured out of IndyCar's top drivers in a highly entertaining post-qualifying news conference at the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Rahal and Power mocked Pagenaud, who admitted confidence for Sunday's race has stroked his ego, all while Alexander Rossi coolly listened as his rivals praised his pole-winning lap.
The atmosphere is electric at the 45th running of Long Beach, second in prestige only to the Indianapolis 500 on the IndyCar schedule, and the energy around the event has created a spark throughout the field. The race is expected to be competitive, the competition close, with at least half the field of 23 legitimate contenders to win.
The six drivers in the final qualifying session were separated by less than a second, and every practice session on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn clockwise temporary street course has been tight from top to bottom. That, Rahal said, contributed to the light and loose attitude among the drivers after qualifying.
"The competitive nature of this, like, it drives us all," Rahal said. "You feel like if you're in the top 10, you've been solid. Didn't used to be that way, but obviously, we'd all like to be on pole. It would be even better. But I think you really have to feel a sense of like accomplishment as a team.
"You can see it across all our mechanics, too. Everybody is happy. You make it to the Fast Six, you've really done something. Like this morning, 1.1 seconds across from 1st to 23rd over a street course this long, with all the bumps and curves and this and that, nowhere else in the world will you find racing that competitive, period."
Rossi, who won the race from the pole last year, snagged the top starting spot in Saturday's qualifying session by posting his fast lap as the clock expired. The Andretti Autosport driver scored victories in three of the four times he's started an IndyCar race out front.
Scott Dixon qualified second Saturday, his best starting position at Long Beach, followed by the Team Penske trio of Power, Josef Newgarden and Pagenaud. Rahal was sixth for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
The final qualifying session was split evenly between Honda and Chevrolet, but the Honda drivers represented three different teams, including Chip Ganassi Racing and an all-Honda front row of Rossi and Dixon. The three Penske drivers represented Chevy, with Patricio O'Ward in ninth the next highest-qualifying driver from the bowtie brand.
But the session might have gone differently if rookie Felix Rosenqvist had not crashed into a tire barrier while pushing the limit in the second round. Rosenqvist was second fastest when he went off course, and the penalty for causing a caution was the loss of his two fastest qualifying laps. It advanced Newgarden into the Fast Six and Rosenqvist car owner Chip Ganassi was visibly upset to see a crashed car and lost opportunity to put both of his drivers in the final round.
"It was a driver mistake, definitely," said Rosenqvist. "I had a good lap, then went for a second one that looked a bit slower, but probably tried too hard there in the last sector. It's always within thousands and hundreds of a second, and you don't really want to relax even if you've had a good lap time. The instruction is always to push until the end.
"It's always such small margin, so just a slight mistake looking up over the bump will cost you."
Tony Kanaan crashed in the first group and the stoppage cost James Hinchcliffe a shot at advancing into the next round. Hinchcliffe lobbied that IndyCar should have extended the qualifying session, but under rule they had passed the time on the clock in which they could have gone longer.
"Such a kick in the nuts," the Canadian said. "Has such an effect on the championship."
As for Pagenaud, definitely a bit chippy during this slow start to the season, his hopes are high for a win on Sunday. His best finish through three races is seventh, he's 12th in points and hasn't led a lap yet this season. Although he won five races and the 2016 championship in his first season with Penske, he was winless last year and likely concerned about keeping his seat at the vaunted Penske organization.
He's used various media opportunities to remind that he's a former series champion and still a strong part of the Penske program.
"It's just my ego coming out. I'm a pretentious person, so I just said these things. Why not say it, right?" Pagenaud said. "I feel confident, so I think ego comes out when you're confident. I think that's what's going on, maybe."
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