Ryan Hunter-Reay survived a late challenge from Will Power to claim pole position for this weekend's IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park.
In a drama-filled session, the reigning champion moved to the top late in the Fast Six with a best lap of 1m07.0871s, but then had to watch as Power squeezed in one final flying lap. The Australian's efforts fell short though, and he was forced to settle for second with a time 0.2s down on Hunter-Reay's.
"We just kept progressing and we knew where we needed to work on it," Hunter-Reay said.
Rookie Tristan Vautier did a remarkable job to qualify third, considering that he didn't even know that he had progressed to the final round of qualifying until it was just about to start. The Indy Lights champion initially ended the second phase in seventh place, and therefore missed out on advancing to the Fast Six. His progress was sealed when Takuma Sato was disqualified from the session for blocking Justin Wilson.
Sato was the first victim of newly introduced Rule 18.104.22.168, which states:"To further emphasize on-track sportsmanship, if a car is deemed by the race director to have interfered with qualifications during Segment 1 or 2 of road/street course qualifying, the car will not be allowed to advance to the next segment in addition to having its two fastest laps disallowed."
"I'm really upset by what happened," fumed Wilson. "We definitely had a top-three car today, possible even a pole-winning one. My red tires were just coming in and I was working on a very quick lap when Sato slowed down in front of me and didn't get out of the way. That caused me to slow down and have to go around him. Once I came in into the pits I ran right to the IndyCar trailer to see if they saw the incident. They took Sato's two fastest laps away, which was some sort of justice. I just feel bad for the crew because they have given me a pole-winning car this weekend."
Sato's explanation: "I checked my mirror on the back straight and there was no one there, and then going through Turns 7 and 8 – which is where the elevation changes – which is probably the worst place for Justin Wilson to catch me because I couldn't see anything behind me. When I was able to see that he was coming on I tried to keep my line tight and let him have the racing line. Obviously it was close but I was disappointed to be penalized."
Welcome news as all this was for Vautier, it came after his car had already been pushed back to the paddock, prompting a frantic scramble among the Schmidt Peterson squad to return it to pitlane and ready it for another qualifying run.
Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon was fourth fastest, the Kiwi having earlier become the first driver to dip into the 1m06s range when he delivered a 1m06.7250s effort during the first qualifying phase. He wasn't especially thrilled with his showing, however.
"I am a bit bummed about qualifying," Dixon declared. "We were fastest in Q1 and Q2 and then just a bit of missed timing – a bit on my behalf, didn't go out hard enough and then tried to expect some more from the tires later and it just wasn't there.
"I don't think we quite would have gotten a 7.0 that Ryan did – you know we did a 6.7 earlier on new tires but he did a hell of a job of putting a good lap together."
Charlie Kimball and Helio Castroneves rounded out the top six in a field in which several pre-weekend favorites were canceled out early.
A super-competitive first qualifying group claimed the scalps of Simon Pagenaud, Dario Franchitti, Alex Tagliani, Tony Kanaan, and Sebastien Bourdais. But just how close it was between them was illustrated by the fact that six of the seven drivers eliminated in that phase had registered times fast enough to have advanced them had they been in the second group.
Group 2 also claimed some high-profile names, including Simona De Silvestro (who had topped the pre-qualifying practice session) and St. Petersburg winner James Hinchcliffe. The latter felt that he had been unfairly blocked by Power, although the Australian suggested that this might have been due to the natural accordion effect that the track creates through Turn 9.
"It's frustrating but we've got an extra set of reds (Firestone red alternate tires) than those guys now in the race and maybe degradation will come into it tomorrow," Hinchcliff mused.
AJ Allmendinger made it through to the second phase in his open-wheel comeback, and will start in the middle of the field.
"I wasn't as strong in the second run as I was in the first. I just didn't feel as good on the second set of tires," Allmendinger related. "We made our first goal of getting out of the first round of qualifying. Making it into the top six was a pretty lofty goal, especially with it being my first time (in this format) and first time on the red (tires).
"It's still good to be inside the top 12. I know the IZOD Team Penske car will be good in the race, it's just a matter of me going with the flow and how I react to everything."
Honda GP of Alabama qualifying results