Andretti Autosport made it a 1-2-3 start – with local star Marco Andretti leading the way – to create quite a splash as the IndyCar Series returned to Pocono Raceway for the first time since 1989.
IndyCar is using three-wide starts at Pocono, making it an all-Andretti front row on a track not far from where one of racing’s greatest families has lived for decades.
Andretti didn’t just win the pole, he smashed the track record. His two-lap average speed of 221.273 mph was fast enough for the pole Saturday and knocked Emerson Fittipaldi’s speed of 211.715 in 1989 out of the top spot.
Pocono is considered a hometown track for the Andrettis, who hail from nearby Nazareth.
Marco’s father, Michael, owns the team. His grandfather, Mario, was one of racing’s greatest drivers and is still a fixture at the track.
It might be time for a big family celebration.
But don’t forget to bring the teammates. Ryan Hunter-Reay starts second and James Hinchcliffe is third to help Andretti Autosport sweep the front row.
“We have been making statement after statement, so it’s a good feeling,” Marco said.
Andretti won his second pole of the season. Michael Andretti won the Pocono pole in 1986 and Mario won the 1987 pole.
Andretti was not yet 3 years old when three Andrettis – Michael, Mario and John – all competed in the last Pocono race. Andretti said he was excited to have the chance to drive in front of friends, family, maybe even most of the town will be packed into the grandstands.
“I’ve taken a huge liking to this place, as soon as I rolled off here in the initial test,” Andretti said. “I really think the IndyCars are built for this track. This became my favorite track. I love Indianapolis. But the way this place races, it’s so challenging.”
Will Power starts fourth and Tony Kanaan fifth on the 2½-mile tri-oval. Points leader Helio Castroneves starts sixth.
Kanaan, the Indianapolis 500 winner, needs wins at Pocono and Fontana, Calif., to win the Triple Crown and a $1 million payout.
“I think the Andretti guys were strong through the entire season,” Kanaan said. “If you look at the Indy 500 effort, I wasn’t expecting anything less. I don’t think I had it for him for the pole. But this race is a 400-mile race. I don’t think you can pick a favorite yet.”
It’s hard to bet against Andretti, who topped both practice sessions Thursday and has his eye on the winner’s circle.
The last time a team swept a three-car front row in an IndyCar event was the 1988 Indianapolis 500, with Penske Racing’s Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser.
“It does help. There’s cooperation there,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s like, ‘Go ahead, after you. No, after you.’ But that’s only for the first lap. After that, we get going.”
Andretti driver E.J. Viso was in position to qualify fourth until he slammed into the wall. He walked away from the accident.
Alex Tagliani also was unhurt after his car tagged the wall.
The return to Pocono is being celebrated as a nod to IndyCar’s history and tradition. Pocono’s three corners were designed in 1965 to model corners at Indianapolis, Milwaukee and now-defunct Trenton, and fans have always considered the track an important venue in open wheel racing.
With Pocono back on the schedule, IndyCar resurrected the “Triple Crown” challenge, a three-race competition in 2013 for $1 million to the driver that wins the Indianapolis 500, the 400-miler at Pocono and the season finale at Fontana. A driver who wins two of the three can win a $250,000 bonus from promotion sponsor Fuzzy’s Vodka.
IndyCar ran a “Triple Crown” at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario from 1971-1980 and from 1981-1989 at Indy, Pocono and Michigan. Only Unser won all three races in a single season, in 1978.
Kanaan is the only driver eligible to win $1 million dollars after his breakthrough race at Indy. He knows sweeping the three races won’t be easy.
“My boss tells me, all the time, that’s why I get paid the big bucks,” Kanaan said.
Pocono CEO and president Brandon Igdalsky said after qualifying that ticket sales were solid for the holiday weekend race and there was a strong turnout of fans who don’t attend the track’s two NASCAR Sprint Cup races.
“I was extremely impressed with the amount of people that came to watch us today,” Kanaan said. “I’ve always heard good things about this place and I’m excited about it.”