Hunter-Reay wins Verizon P1 Award at Barber

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Intrigue. Drama. Surprises. Rising blood pressure. And that was only qualifications for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

There are multiple subplots in the inherent excitement of the 90-lap race April 7 on the 2.38-mile, 17-turn Barber Motorsports Park -- no shortage of storylines for the NBC Sports Network and IMS Radio Network broadcasts.

Click it: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama qualifying results

A quick rundown:

• Takuma Sato slipping into the Firestone Fast Six for the second consecutive race -- or so it appeared. He was penalized for interference in Round 2 and was credited with qualifying 12th (a drop of at least six positions).

• Rookie Tristan Vautier, who just missed qualifying for his second consecutive Firestone Fast Six, being called back to pit lane to participate in the 10-minute session and qualifying third.

• Track record by more than 3 seconds by Scott Dixon, set in the first of the three rounds. But the three-time runner-up at Barber didn't win the Verizon P1 Award (he'll start fourth).

• Reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was relegated to 18th place in the season opener because of a mechanical issue, earning his third series pole and breaking the Team Penske pole domination.

• Charlie Kimball advancing to the Firestone Fast Six for the first time and posting his career-best starting position on the weekend in which a diabetes awareness and education initiative is being highlighted.

• Will Power, the race winner the past two years, joining his 2012 championship protagonist on the front row. Power won the 2012 race starting from ninth.

• AJ Allmendinger qualifying 10th in his IZOD IndyCar Series debut.

• Four-time series champion Dario Franchitti qualifying 17th and St. Pete race winner James Hinchcliffe (who started fourth) qualifying 20th.

• Five teams represented in the top three rows.

Sato, who qualified second and finished eighth at St. Petersburg on March 24, said the interference penalty of losing his fastest two laps was a judgement call by IZOD IndyCar Series race director Beaux Barfield.

“It’s disappointing for us not to be able to show our performance in the Fast Six," said Sato, who is competing in his second race in the No. 14 ABC Supply car for A.J. Foyt Racing. "We had a difficult practice session this morning but we worked on our set-up and in the first two segments. The car was much more connected and I was able to commit and we advanced to the Fast Six.

"However in the second segment I had to back off because there was a slower car in front of me at the exit of Turn 5. So I abandoned my qualifying lap and I tried to stretch the space. 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.”

Wilson, who finished seventh in the session (the top six advance) said it was a clear-cut decision. According to Section of the IZOD IndyCar Series rulebook, if the violation occurs during Segment One or Segment Two, the car's best two timed laps during that segment shall be disallowed, the car shall not advance to the next segment.

In the IZOD IndyCar Series team managers meeting April 5, INDYCAR officials told teams that when sending a driver out for a run during qualifying and the driver is on a different schedule, find a good gap to send them out.

"I’m really upset by what happened,” said Wilson, who qualified eighth. “We definitely had a top-three car today, possibly 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."

This was Hunter-Reay's first top-10 start in the four years at Barber, where his best finish is 12th. Team Penske (Power in 2011 and 2010; Helio Castroneves in 2012) had won the pole previously.

"Great start, now we have to go make it work," he said. "This team has done so well this weekend, we just kept progressing and we knew where we needed to work on it. I really went to work on my driving as well, and we all did it together here.

"It's a very challenging track that rewards aggressiveness, but if you step over just a little too far on set-up or on driving it’ll definitely punish you."

Another storyline for the race.