ST. PETERSBURG — For all of Saturday's surprises and the long list of changes to the IndyCar series, Will Power remains the man to beat in St. Petersburg.
The Team Penske driver's No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet set a series track record to clinch his third consecutive pole for today's season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Power's time of 1 minute, 1.3721 seconds (105.585 mph) broke the record he set when he won the pole two years ago (1:01.6025).
"It's a good start," Power said. "It's only the beginning of the weekend."
And it was the one constant in a surprising Saturday.
Honda had been the series' only engine supplier since 2006, and its engines powered six of the eight quickest machines in Saturday morning's practice. But only one Honda driver — rookie Simon Pagenaud — made it to the Fast Six qualifying finals. And barring an appeal, his No. 77 Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports machine will start 16th after a 10-spot penalty for an unauthorized engine change Friday.
The Honda stable's biggest absence in the Fast Six was Chip Ganassi Racing, the IndyCar juggernaut with four consecutive series championships. Ganassi hadn't been shut out of the Fast Six since the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April.
Defending race and series champion Dario Franchitti had the 10th-best qualifying time (1:01.9570), more than half a second slower than his rival, Power. Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon was seventh-quickest. Only Dan Wheldon (2005) and Graham Rahal (2008) have won here while starting outside the top five.
"We still have some tricks up our sleeve," said Franchitti, the three-time defending series champion.
Instead, Chevy took the top five spots and had seven of the nine quickest qualifying times. Power's Penske teammate, Ryan Briscoe will start second followed by the Andretti Autosport duo of Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe.
Penske's Helio Castroneves qualified fifth.
"What's been impressive with this Chevy team, every session there's an improvement," Hinchcliffe said. "Every session they're plugging into that car, and they are finding gains."
Power and Penske are still trying to gain on rival Ganassi. Power, who earned his 25th pole in major open-wheel racing Saturday, has run well here in the past. He won the Grand Prix in 2010 and finished second last year. But with consecutive series runnerup finishes to Franchitti, he hasn't been able to convert those strong starts into an elusive championship.
Team owner Roger Penske said that if Power's team can limit costly makes, the 31-year-old Australian should be in this year's title hunt.
"The number of road races there are this year should play into our hand," Penske said.
And it starts today on the streets of St. Petersburg.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.
Grand Prix of St. Petersburg