BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – A session that didn’t go well for those typically strong at qualifying went just fine Saturday for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
The team’s two drivers swept the front row for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, with Takuma Sato taking the NTT P1 Award with a last-second lap of 1 minute, 8.5934 seconds (120.711 mph) around the 17-turn, 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park road circuit.
HONDA INDY GRAND PRIX OF ALABAMA: Qualifying results
That was just slightly more than a tenth of a second faster than teammate Graham Rahal and the first pole position on a road course and eighth overall in Sato’s 10 years in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“It’s such a nice feeling,” said Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner driving the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda this weekend. “As a driver, as a team, top of the timesheet. Whenever you do that, it’s always special. First (pole) in road course qualification, front row locked in for the team. This is a dream result.”
It was the first front-row sweep for the team co-owned by Bobby Rahal since 2005 at Chicagoland Speedway, when rookie sensation Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice took the top two starting positions.
“We work hard,” Bobby Rahal said. “This team works very hard to compete against the level of teams that we do, like Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, obviously. Today is a fulfillment of that effort. Tomorrow is the day that counts. Now we have to finish the job.”
The results also reflected a rare miss of the Firestone Fast Six by Team Penske and Andretti Autosport, both usually strong at qualifying and rarely shut out of the final round.
Instead, Honda-powered entries took the top five positions. Following Sato and Rahal were Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Sebastien Bourdais and Spencer Pigot, the only Chevrolet driver who reached the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in his 42 races in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Last year, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing won just once – Sato’s victory at Portland International Raceway – but didn’t win a pole. The 1-2 sweep Saturday set off an exuberant celebration in the pits.
“We got kicked around last year, no doubt about that,” said Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 One Cure Honda. “It adds fuel to the fire. Everybody wants to be competitive and be up front. This is the first step, but it's a great reflection, I think, on the effort that's gone in. I'm just really proud of the team. Go down there right now, you see a lot of smiles. You didn't see those smiles last year. I think everybody feels a little bit rewarded finally for all the effort that's gone in.”
Team Penske, which typically leads the way in qualifying, was shut out of the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in five years. Instead, Will Power (who had claimed the pole in the first two races this season) will start seventh, Simon Pagenaud 14th and Josef Newgarden 16th. Each is a past Barber winner – Newgarden three times, Power twice and Pagenaud once – so can’t be written off for Sunday’s race.
Andretti Autosport endured a similar qualifying fate, with Alexander Rossi winding up eighth, Ryan Hunter-Reay 11th, Marco Andretti 13th and Zach Veach 23rd. The results ended a run of seven consecutive Firestone Fast Six appearances for both Rossi and Hunter-Reay.
“Unfortunately, everyone is sitting right now in eighth, 11th and 13th,” Hunter-Reay said. “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.”
Graham Rahal finished second twice at Barber Motorsports Park – in 2015 and 2016 – Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s best finishes in seven previous races at the circuit.
“Historically, we've had good races here,” Bobby Rahal said. “We have yet to start where we are. I think by all rights we should be competitive and in the hunt for the win. Certainly, that's my expectation. We have a lot of work yet to do. It's not going to be easy. Penske didn't have a good qualifying session, but you can never count those guys out.”
Pigot, in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, matched his career-best starting position of sixth at the Indianapolis 500 last year.
“It went according to plan, for the most part,” Pigot said. “We have been making improvements all weekend. The car was at its best in qualifying, especially the first two rounds. Nice to have that progression and the ability to get the most out of the car. … Looking for a bit more tomorrow. Looking forward to fighting with all these guys from the get-go.”
Rookie Santino Ferrucci also impressed by qualifying the No. 19 David Yurman Honda in 10th in just his seventh NTT IndyCar Series race.
“We've had a good car all weekend so far, and it deserved to be in the Firestone Fast Six today,” the Dale Coyne Racing driver said. “Unfortunately, I didn't put the lap together at the end and we ended up P10. This crew has worked really hard and deserved an even better starting position, but that said, I'm confident we can have a really good race and move up the field when it really counts.”
But the story of the day was Sato, whose previous pole positions include five temporary street courses and two ovals, but none on permanent road courses. Until Saturday, that is.
“The team got everything together, so I feel really good,” Sato said. “Obviously, tomorrow is a completely different scenario. A lot of big teams coming, chasing. It's going to be challenging. We feel very happy today, and hopefully tomorrow we can stay competitive.”
A final 30-minute warmup practice at Barber is set for 12:10 p.m. ET Sunday and livestreams on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. Race coverage starts at 4 p.m. on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.