- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Last year's Izod IndyCar Series race at Watkins Glen International produced a surprise when Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing drove into victory circle. But the way things are going in 2010, qualifying for Sunday's Camping World Grand Prix at The Glen could be a foregone conclusion.
That's because Team Penske's powerful three-driver lineup has claimed seven consecutive IndyCar Series pole positions. The team has actually posted the fastest qualifying lap for all eight IndyCar races in 2010 -- Will Power was quickest in the first two qualifying heats for the season opener at Sao Paulo only for Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing to claim the pole in the Firestone Fast Six shootout.
The Penske pole streak is amazing on a number of levels. Seven consecutive poles is an IndyCar Series record, and all three of the team's drivers have gotten in on the act. Power leads the category (not to mention the IndyCar championship) with four poles, Ryan Briscoe has claimed a pair and Helio Castroneves nabbed the final one -- and a big one it was -- at the Indianapolis 500.
The Penske poles have come on all of the track types used by the IndyCar Series -- road course, street course, short oval, 1.5-mile oval and, of course, the unique Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But it's really no surprise. Roger Penske's teams have claimed 385 poles during the team's rich history, and if the Penske PR pitch of "perhaps the greatest qualifying run of any team in racing history" is a bit hyperbolic, it's not by much.
The streak may not end soon. The Penske drivers have earned poles at all of the upcoming IndyCar tracks, including Watkins Glen. But, frankly, they'd be more than happy to trade poles for race wins.
"We've definitely had the speed all year but had a couple bad runs in races," said Power, who did convert his pole at St. Petersburg into a win. "Helio and Ryan and I are working very hard together, and the team is really motivated to win a championship. I think it's a really strong combination.
"Like always in motorsports, all the details count, and on road courses, there's a lot of them you have to get right to be really quick. On an oval, if you happen to select the right time to go and the wind is right, you can get a pole. But on the road courses, you really have to work for it. You have to get through every single round and then the Fast Six at the end. It's a challenge."
Penske Racing President Tim Cindric is pleased by the pole run but not totally surprised. On road courses in particular, he gives most of the credit to the drivers.
"I guess we're kind of expected to give the drivers the equipment to do the job," he said. "The drivers are the ones that really have to guide what it's going to take for them to do a fast lap. They're the ones that have to have that unique ability to put it on the edge for one lap and be ready to suffer the consequences. They have to guide the engineers for the direction they need for that one lap.
"As a top team, we're expected to have the tools to be on the pole. But to actually put it on the pole, I think, is a huge credit to the driver, especially at the track where we're not flat out. On the flat-out tracks, the engineers deserve more credit. But on the road courses, and at Indy, it's down to the drivers more than anything. At Indy, you could have given the field Helio's car and I don't think anyone could have driven it as fast as he did."
Helio and Ryan and I are working very hard together, and the team is really motivated to win a championship. I think it's a really strong combination.
”-- Will Power
The usual cast of characters is set to try to knock Team Penske off its pole perch, starting with the two-time defending series champion Ganassi team. While Franchitti has never won at Watkins Glen, Scott Dixon is a three-time winner (2005 through 2007) at the historic road course.
Besides Dixon and Wilson, the only other former winner in the field is Ryan Hunter-Reay, who leads an expanded five-car Andretti Autosport attack this weekend. Irishman Adam Carroll, a highly regarded road racer, will wheel the team's No. 27 car for the first of several scheduled events. Tony Kanaan is coming off his first race win in more than two years, and Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti have both notched podium finishes in 2010.
Then there's Wilson, who produced the feel-good story of the 2009 season with his classy victory for Dale Coyne, the first in the long history of Coyne's small team. Wilson has moved to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for 2010 and already has recorded second- and third-place finishes on road courses this year. Paul Tracy steps into DRR's No. 24 car this weekend as regular driver Mike Conway continues to recuperate from injuries he suffered in the Indianapolis 500.
Watkins Glen is definitely the fastest road course the IndyCar Series races on, if not the most physical. However, temperatures are expected to creep into the 90s for race day, and the heat could take a toll on some competitors.
This weekend's race is the first of five consecutive road races for the IndyCar Series, and Power knows he needs to capitalize on these events to increase his championship lead prior to the final four-race oval "quarter" of the season.
"The oval races will definitely be the weakest part of my season," Power admitted. "There's nothing I can do about it. It is what it is, and all I can do is learn as quickly as possible.
"But I'm not going to do anything different for these road races than I did at the start of the year. The team and the driver that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to be the guy that wins the championship, not necessarily the guy that wins the most races. We're coming up to some pretty strong tracks for other teams and drivers -- Dixon and Wilson are particularly strong at Watkins Glen.
"Qualifying is great, but we're just going to keep trying to win races."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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