LEEDS, Ala – What a weird qualifying session that we saw on Saturday at the Barber Motorsports Park. Between the seven combined cars with Team Penske and Andretti Autosport, none of which made it to the Firestone Fast Six.
That opened up the door for a team like Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing. They swept the front row for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (4 p.m. ET/NBCSN/IndyCar Radio Network) with Takuma Sato snagging the Verizon P1 Pole Award late in the third and final round en route to his eighth pole of his NTT IndyCar Series career and first since Pocono in 2017.
Sato, circled the track with a time of 1:08.5934-seconds in his No. 30 Honda for just his third pole since 2015.
His teammate Graham Rahal will start alongside in second in his No. 15 Honda. Rahal, qualified with a time of 1:08.6971-seconds in giving RLL a clean sweep of the front row.
Scott Dixon will start third in his No. 9 Honda. Dixon (1:08.8081-seconds) has never won at Barber before but does have five runner-up finish in nine tries.
James Hinchcliffe (1:08.8476-seconds) starts fourth in his No. 5 Honda. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver has been quick all weekend in being third, first and first respectively in practice.
Another quick car in Sebastien Bourdais rounds out the top five in his No. 18 Honda. Bourdais, qualified with a lap of 1:09.0189-seconds.
The top Chevrolet driver was Spencer Pigot in sixth.
Here are my main takeaways.
Fast Six Was A Rarity
Between the six drivers to make the final round, other than Scott Dixon (26 poles) and Sebastien Bourdais (34 poles) the other four had a combined 11 pole positions. That’s because none of the three Penske cars nor four Andretti cars made it to the Fast Six. That takes away some heavy hitters.
The other teams capitalized.
Honda Teams Shine
Out of the 12 cars to make it out of the opening round of qualifying, 10 of which belonged to Honda’s. That’s not too surprising in that Honda’s have been so fast in all three practice sessions around the 2.38-mile road course.
If you go to Row 7, 11 of the top 13 starters are Honda drivers with the top Chevy entrant being sixth (Spencer Pigot).
Team Penske Fails To Make The Fast 6
Penske has struggled this weekend. They didn’t have really any speeds in any of the three practice sessions and that translated into a frustrating qualifying round.
Two of the three Penske drivers failed to make it out of the first round with Simon Pagenaud starting 14th and Josef Newgarden 16th. Combined, these two have won the last four races at Barber.
Newgarden, has won the last two and three of the last four overall to go along with finishing first and second to start the year off. He was only 14th, 18th and 17th respectively in practice too.
“We gave it all we had in the Fitzgerald USA Chevrolet, but we just didn’t have enough to advance.,” said Newgarden. “We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just didn’t have enough speed overall to move on. I have all the confidence in the world in our Team Penske guys to figure it out. This is why you have a great team. We’ll work on it tonight and we’ll come back tomorrow and be ready to go in the race.”
Pagenaud, has two podiums in his last three Barber starts but was only 10th, 15th and seventh respectively in practice. He cites how stacked the second group was as to why they struggled to advance.
“It was definitely a tough qualifying session with a lot of champions in that second group,” said the Frenchman. “I felt like I gave it everything I had there, but we’re talking like five-hundredths of a second to try to transfer to the next round. We didn’t leave anything on the table, so we have a little bit more work to do to be ready for the race. Everyone on the Menards Chevrolet team will be focused on getting everything right tomorrow to get a good result.”
Will Power won the last two poles this season but failed to make it to the Fast Six on a road course for the first time since Watkins Glen in 2017, He will start seventh after being only 12th, 11th and 15th respectively in practice. The Aussie though, says that he had the pace to get into the Fast Six but made a mistake.
“I aborted the lap because I pushed wide in Turn 17, but I shouldn’t have,” said Power. “When I think about it, you’re only a tenth down on the eight-five (1:08.5) I did. If I just would have done an eight-seven, I would have been fine. That was my bad. We struggled all weekend. It’s a tough track to pass on, so it would have been nice to start in the Firestone Fast Six. There are some good guys out there and we’re going to have to work harder to beat them in the Verizon Chevy. It’s been a tough weekend with some of the practice sessions being so short. We’ll have a good think about it for the race and see what we can come up with.”
Penske has won six of the nine years at Barber but it doesn’t appear that they’ll be the favorites on Sunday.
Andretti Autosport Surprisingly Struggles Too
We thought that if Penske struggled, then maybe Andretti would pick up the pace. Instead, none of their four cars made it to the Fast Six either. Alexander Rossi was the quickest for them with an eighth place starting spot in his No. 27 Honda. Rossi, was ninth, fifth and 10th respectively in practice this weekend but has just one top 10 finish in three Barber tries.
“It was a good effort all around by the team – I think we were all pretty good on blacks (Firestone primary tires),” said Rossi. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have a car balance quite sorted for reds (Firestone alternate tires). It’s disappointing that eighth is our best starting position here, so we’ll take some solace in that, but it’s disappointing to not transfer into the Firestone Fast Six.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay will start 11th in his No. 28 Honda but was only 13th in practice on Saturday after being fifth and sixth respectively on Friday. He said that they’re scratching their heads as to why they keep losing speed as the weekend goes on.
“We seemed to plateau from Practice 1 where we were fifth,” said the two-time Barber race winner. “The whole team has fallen in competitiveness as every session has gone on. So, unfortunately everyone is sitting right now in eighth, 11th and 13th. We don’t know the reason, we’re all scratching our heads. But, looking down pit lane, the usual top qualifiers didn’t advance to the Firestone Fast Six, except for (Scott) Dixon. We’ll look at it tonight. Historically, this has been a strong track for us and it’s way too complicated out there for us right now, but we’ll work to find a solution and fight hard for the DHL team.”
Marco Andretti rolls off 13th while Zach Veach starts 23rd.
Even Colton Herta had an issue and will start ninth.
Rookies Struggle Overall
Yes, we have two rookie drivers starting in the top 10, but the rest are towards the back. Out of the bottom eight starting spots, four of which are rookies with Felix Rosenqvist starting 17th and Pato O’Ward starting alongside of him in 18th.
Marcus Ericsson will roll off 20th while Ben Hanley starts last in 24th.
Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Starting Lineup
Row 1: Takuma Sato, Graham Rahal
Row 2: Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe
Row 3: Sebastien Bourdais, Spencer Pigot
Row 4: Will Power, Alexander Rossi
Row 5: Colton Herta R, Santino Ferrucci R
Row 6: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Jack Harvey
Row 7: Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud
Row 8: Matheus Leist, Josef Newgarden
Row 9: Felix Rosenqvist R, Patricio O’Ward R
Row 10: Tony Kanaan, Marcus Ericsson R
Row 11: Ed Jones, Max Chilton
Row 12: Zach Veach, Ben Hanley R