SONOMA, California – Ryan Hunter-Reay ignored the hype surrounding the battle for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship on Saturday and set about the task at hand: winning the Verizon P1 Award in qualifying for the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The Andretti Autosport veteran won the pole position for the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma with a dramatic last lap in the Firestone Fast Six, the climactic round of knockout qualifying. Hunter-Reay blasted around the Sonoma Raceway road course in 1 minute, 17.6277 seconds (110.605 mph) in the No. 28 DHL Honda to earn the first starting position for Sunday’s season finale.
INDYCAR GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA: Official qualifying results
In doing so, Hunter-Reay also prevented championship leader Scott Dixon from earning an important bonus point awarded to the fast qualifier. Dixon still takes a 29-point lead over Hunter-Reay's teammate Alexander Rossi into the race that offers double points. Team Penske teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden also remain mathematically alive in the title chase, each 87 points behind Dixon, as the Verizon IndyCar Series champion will be decided at the last race of the season for the 13th straight year.
But qualifying belonged to Hunter-Reay, who picked up the seventh pole position of his Indy car career and first since Long Beach in April 2014.
“This (No.) 28 DHL Honda team did just such a good job putting a great car under me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s nice to finally get that pole at Sonoma because we’ve been knocking on the door for it for years, so definitely a good team effort.
“I’m certainly doing my part (to help Rossi); I just took a point away from Dixon, so we’re doing everything we can do.”
Dixon, in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, will start second after a lap of 1:17.7599 (110.417 mph). Dixon is chasing a fifth Verizon IndyCar Series championship that would leave him behind only A.J. Foyt (seven) for most season titles in Indy car history.
“I think we definitely had a shot to put the PNC Bank car on pole, but we’ll have to chalk that up to driver error,” Dixon said. “I had a lap going that would have gotten the pole, but I just made a mistake and it cost us.
“We’ve had a fast car all weekend here at Sonoma and we’ve stayed at the pointy end of the field since we unloaded. Hopefully that will continue in the race (Sunday) and we can finish the season strong.”
Rossi, Power and Newgarden will all be within arm’s reach of Dixon when the green flag drops on the 2.385-mile permanent road course hosting the season finale for the fourth straight year. Rossi will start sixth in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda (1:18.0019, 110.074 mph) after opting for Firestone black-sidewall primary tires in the Firestone Fast Six instead of the traditional choice for softer red-sidewall alternates.
“I don’t think we had the pace for Ryan, but we decided to try something different and see where it got us,” Rossi said.
“I don’t see us starting behind Dixon (as) that big of an issue. We just need to make sure we build a good race car and make sure we do the best job that we can and extract the most out of the (No.) 27.”
Reigning series champion Newgarden qualified third in the No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:17.7937, 110.369 mph). Teammate Power qualified a season-worst seventh in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:17.6495, 110.574 mph). It’s the only time this season that Power did not advance to the Firestone Fast Six on a road or street course.
“We unfortunately should have gone another lap (in Round 2),” said Power, the 2014 series champion. “We were trying to save our tires for the Fast Six, but it was just a bad call. Unbelievable when you think about our qualifying record this year, but that’s how it goes.”
The INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma pays 100 points to the winner, with 80 for second place and sliding down to 10 points for 25th position. Dixon clinches the championship by finishing ahead of Rossi and in no lower than 21st place.
Rossi could lay claim to his first title under numerous scenarios finishing ahead of Dixon, the simplest by winning the race and Dixon placing third or worse without collecting the two bonus points for leading the most laps. For Newgarden or Power to win the championship, they must win the race, have Dixon finish no better than 24th (and not lead the most laps) and Rossi finish no better than 10th.
Marco Andretti reached the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in 2018, qualifying fourth in the No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda. Andretti won the pole for the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in June under a single-session, group-qualifying format.
Patricio O’Ward, the recently crowned Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion making his Verizon IndyCar Series debut, continued to impress by advancing to the Firestone Fast Six and qualifying fifth in the No. 8 Harding Group Chevrolet (1:17.9737, 110.114 mph). It is the best qualifying effort for Harding Racing in its first full-time season.
“I honestly don't know what to think about it,” O’Ward, the 19-year-old Mexican, said when he realized the company he was in. “When I saw that I moved into the Fast Six, I thought, ‘Newgarden, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Rossi – such big names, you've been looking at them for years and years and years.’
“It's something that you have to start believing that you can be like them, that you can beat them, that you can give them a run for their money. It's a new feeling.”
Live coverage of the 85-lap race, including the post-race championship presentation, begins at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.