BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – This one is all about unpredictability.
As drivers and teams prepared Sunday morning for the 10th annual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, the topic of conversation remained Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s sweep of the front row – its first 1-2 sweep of NTT IndyCar Series qualifying in 14 years – and the struggles encountered by teams usually associated with success in qualifying.
All of which led to talk of the uncertainty of the race itself.
"It has the potential to be one of the highlight excitement races of the year, I think, because you have such differences in tires, such kind of unknowns associated with the tires, and then the question mark of a two- or three-stop strategy," said Alexander Rossi, who qualified eighth Saturday in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda but had the second-fastest lap in Sunday's morning warmup. "Both are very feasible and possible. So I think you’re going to have guys not only doing different fuel strategies, but there are going to be completely different tire strategies.
“It’s going to be crazy, it’s going to be cool. I’m excited. I just hope we make the right team decisions on which ones to go with."
On Saturday, Takuma Sato won an NTT P1 Award pole position on a road course for the first time in his 10 NTT IndyCar Series seasons, topping teammate Graham Rahal by 0.1037 of a second in the final moments of the Firestone Fast Six at Barber Motorsports Park.
HONDA INDY GRAND PRIX OF ALABAMA: Race start tire designation
Both drivers had showed speed in the three practice sessions leading up to qualifying, but both admitted they didn’t expect a sweep. James Hinchcliffe had been the one atop the timesheets before qualifying, making him the favorite to win the pole.
“Before qualifying, we never thought we could lock into the front row,” said Sato, driving the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda. “We knew it could be competitive. Obviously, James’ time (in practice) is very impressive. We tried to catch him. Luckily, all the conditions were toward us.”
Hinchcliffe and his No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda crew were perplexed that he didn’t leap to the front in qualifying, but he said that’s more a function of competition than anything else. The lap times this weekend have been astonishingly close – just one second separated the top 13 drivers during Sunday morning’s 30-minute warmup on the 2.3-mile road circuit – a strong indicator that the race is likely to be just as unpredictable as qualifying.
“You've seen all weekend the times are incredibly close,” said Hinchcliffe, who will start fourth when today’s 90-lap race starts shortly after 4 p.m. ET. “A track like Barber, it's so easy to make a small mistake that costs a lot of time. … A car a little bit out of balance, it's a lot of lap time. You can't afford to lose a lot of lap time.”
Even more surprising than the positive qualifying efforts of Sato, Rahal and Spencer Pigot, who made it to the Firestone Fast Six in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet for the first time in his 42-race career, were the troubles of teams typically expected to start near the front of the grid. Team Penske and Andretti Autosport both failed to make it into the final round.
“We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just didn't have enough speed overall to move on,” said Josef Newgarden, the three-time Barber winner who will start 16th today in the No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet. “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.”
It showed in the morning warmup, when Newgarden posted the third-fastest lap, but he qualified worst of the three Penske drivers (Will Power was seventh and Simon Pagenaud 14th). Rossi’s eighth-place effort in qualifying was tops of the Andretti drivers (Ryan Hunter-Reay 11th, Marco Andretti 13th and Zach Veach 23rd).
Can the Penske and Andretti cars that start farther back in the field than usual find victory lane? Absolutely. Can Sato, Rahal, Hinchcliffe, reigning series champion Scott Dixon (starting third) and the others starting up front do the same? Of course.
The uncertainty – the extreme uncertainty – makes this race interesting.
“(The race) is a completely different scenario,” Sato said Saturday while celebrating his pole position. “A lot of big teams (will be) coming, chasing. It's going to be challenging.”
Live coverage of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama starts at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
The INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA provides the perfect second-screen complement to the telecast. Select in-car cameras are available as well as all team radio communications, live timing and scoring and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network commentary. Download the app for smartphones at indycar.com/mobile-app.
HONDA GRAND PRIX OF ALABAMA PRESENTED BY AMFIRST:
Race 3 of 17 on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule
Track: Barber Motorsports Park, a 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course in Birmingham, Alabama. This is the 10th straight year that the circuit has hosted an NTT IndyCar Series race.
Race distance: 90 laps/207 miles
Fuel: Each car receives 70 gallons of Speedway E85 ethanol for the race
Push-to-pass: Each car has 200 seconds total duration for the race, with a maximum single use of 20 seconds. The push-to-pass overtake assist provides approximately 60 added horsepower when utilized.
Tire use rule: Every car that finishes the race must complete a stint of at least two laps on one set of the Firestone primary (black-sidewall) tires and one set of new Firestone alternate (red-sidewall) tires in a dry-condition event.