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Castroneves earns pole at Long Beach with track record

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — An IndyCar mandate forced Chevrolet to ditch its winglets for the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Winged or not, those Penske cars are still awfully hard to catch.

Helio Castroneves set a track record and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya finished right behind him during qualifying Saturday, giving Team Penske the top two spots at the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“Every time I go to the race track, I feel like we not only have great speed and a great team — and that’s what it’s all about,” Castroneves said after his 42nd pole, fourth on the career list.

Castroneves, the 2001 champion at Long Beach, had a time of 1 minute, 0.66294 seconds around the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit. His lap during the Fast Six stage of knockout qualifying eclipsed the record of 1:00.882 set by Sebastien Bourdais at a Champ Car race in 2006.

Montoya also beat Bourdais’ mark, finishing in 1:00.66587 to give Team Penske the first two spots for Sunday’s 80-mile race through the streets of downtown Long Beach.

Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing qualified third, with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, Penske’s Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden of CFH Racing rounding out the top six.

“Penske looks the strongest,” Newgarden said. “They’ve really got a really strong car underneath them, it looks like.”

Team Penske dominated at St. Petersburg with the new winglets on its cars, earning four of the top five spots and the checkered flag with Montoya. Team Penske also holds the top three spots in the series standings heading into the Long Beach race, with Montoya, Castroneves and Power.

IndyCar made Chevrolet and Honda change their aero kits to prevent excessive debris on the track after the season’s first two races were filled with cautions and a woman was struck in the head by flying debris in St. Petersburg.

Chevrolet did not have time to strengthen the part of the front wing driver Will Power has called “rabbit ears,” so it removed the pieces from the cars.

Team Penske had no problems with the switch, putting up some of the fastest times in practice.

Even with Power struggling during qualifying — he’ll start 18th — Team Penske earned three of the top five spots for Sunday’s race.

“It did affect us,” Castroneves said. “We understand that the series decided to take those off and you’ve got to dance according to the music.”

With or without the wings, the cars have been running fast all week at Long Beach.

Several drivers flirted with the track record during practice and Tony Kanaan beat it during the opening round of qualifying before failing to make it to the Fast Six stage.

The cars were fast at St. Petersburg as well — at least when they weren’t breaking apart. Power broke the track record twice during qualifying in the first race with new the new aero kits designed by Chevy and Honda.

“This car is so much better,” said Montoya, who returned to IndyCar last season after an eight-year NASCAR stint. “The technology in the cars is amazing. What Chevy and Honda have done with the smaller engines, we’ve got a ton of power. The acceleration of these cars is amazing.”

So far this season Team Penske has been able to get the most out of its cars.

It’s only two races, though. Given time, the other teams are sure to figure out how to track those Penske cars down.

“Penske came out of the gate strong, but I think everyone is going to close the gap throughout the season. That’s just the way IndyCar works,” Newgarden said. “No one’s going to get ahead and stay ahead. Each weekend you’re fighting to find more and more out of the car. You think you find a setup, it works well and it’s successful and you keep running with it — that’s not how it works. You have to keep developing it, keep pushing it.”