It took nearly 14 years, but Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing owns the front row in qualifying again for an NTT IndyCar Series race.
Takuma Sato captured the NTT P1 Award and Graham Rahal qualified second as the teammates locked down the top starting positions for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst. The pole position was the eighth of Sato’s 10-year NTT IndyCar Series career and first on the challenging permanent road course at Barber Motorsports Park.
“This is absolutely a team effort,” Sato said. “To make it a 1-2, this is a dream result. The engineers work so hard along with the boys. Fantastic efforts. I’m really proud of them.”
Driving the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda, Sato turned a lap of 1 minute, 8.5934 seconds (120.711 mph) in the Firestone Fast Six, the last of three qualifying rounds. It earned the 42-year-old from Tokyo his first pole position since Pocono Raceway in 2017 and his first on any NTT IndyCar Series permanent road course.
“This is my first road-course pole position,” the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner said. “I had done it on a street course but not a road course. I dreamed for ages to do this. Today, I think everything came together and I’m so thankful to the whole team.”
Rahal, in the No. 15 One Cure Honda, was second quick at 1:08.6971 (120.529 mph), giving Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing its first qualifying 1-2 since rookie Danica Patrick and 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice accomplished the feat at Chicagoland Speedway in September 2005.
“I tell you, a great performance today by the team – all weekend, really,” said Bobby Rahal, the RLL co-owner whose team notched its 31st pole in Indy car history and first since Graham Rahal did it at the first race of Detroit’s Belle Isle doubleheader in 2017.
“I think they called the tires right at the right time, everybody got a clear track, and in the end, it was all about how fast can you go. … We’ve got to feel pretty excited about (the race) and I told Takuma and Graham, ‘Let’s get through Turn 1 and then we’ll go racing.'”
The RLL duo will lead the 24-car field to the green flag in the 90-lap race, the 10th annual NTT IndyCar Series event to take place on the rolling and technical 17-turn, 2.3-mile circuit in Alabama. Live coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
“I think we’ve had good races here in the past,” said Graham Rahal, who finished second at Barber in 2015 and ’16, “but we’ve never started anywhere near here. Hopefully, tomorrow can be a pretty straightforward, really strong day for us.”
Scott Dixon, the reigning and five-time series champion will start third following a lap of 1:08.8081 (120.335 mph) in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Dixon has finished on the podium seven times in nine previous Barber starts, but never has won the race.
“It was OK, but we were always chasing the number one spot considering practices and just how the car felt,” commented Dixon. “The team made a few changes over the night to make it a little more drivable and somewhere we could get some more out of. And even in the warmer conditions in the afternoon, which we really struggled with yesterday, I think we got it. Starting third, I think we can definitely win from there. Great show for Honda, obviously a home race for them, so hopefully, we can get to that elusive top spot in Alabama with the PNC Bank car.”
James Hinchcliffe, who had set the fastest lap in practice prior to qualifying, qualified fourth in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, with a lap of 1:08.8476 (120.266 mph). Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan’s Sebastien Bourdais was fifth in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda (1:09.0189), ahead of Spencer Pigot, who reached the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in his four-year career and qualified sixth in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet (1:09.6074).
“The car was at its best in qualifying, especially the first two rounds,” Pigot said. “Nice to have that progression and the ability to get the most out of the car. … Overall, happy with our performance, happy for everyone at Ed Carpenter Racing, Autogeek, to be in the Fast Six.
“Looking for a bit more tomorrow. Looking forward to fighting with all these guys from the get-go.”
Noticeably absent from the Firestone Fast Six were drivers from Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. Will Power, who won the NTT P1 Award at the first two NTT IndyCar Series races this season, was the top Penske qualifier in seventh, with teammates Simon Pagenaud 14th and Josef Newgarden 16th. It marked the first time since the Long Beach race in 2014 that no Team Penske driver advanced to the final qualifying round on a road or street course.
“We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just didn’t have enough speed overall to move on,” said Newgarden, the two-time defending Barber race winner who takes an 18-point championship lead over Colton Herta into the race. “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. We’ll work on it tonight and we’ll come back tomorrow and be ready to go in the race.”
Alexander Rossi was the best Andretti qualifier in eighth position and Ryan Hunter-Reay was 11th. The teammates had advanced to the Firestone Fast Six in each of the first two races this season. Rookie sensation Herta, who became the youngest Indy car winner in history on March 24 at Circuit of The Americas, will start ninth in the No. 88 GESS International Honda for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.
A final 30-minute warmup practice at Barber is set for 12:10 p.m. ET Sunday and will livestream on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.
1. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, 1:08.5934 (120.711 mph)
2. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 1:08.6971 (120.529)
3. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 1:08.8081 (120.335)
4. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 1:08.8476 (120.266)
5. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 1:09.0189 (119.967)
6. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 1:09.6074 (118.953)
7. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 1:08.8248 (120.305)
8. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 1:08.8866 (120.198)
9. (88) Colton Herta, Honda, 1:08.9130 (120.151)
10. (19) Santino Ferrucci, Honda, 1:09.0213 (119.963)
11. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 1:09.0764 (119.867)
12. (60) Jack Harvey, Honda, 1:09.2967 (119.486)
13. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 1:08.8950 (120.183)
14. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 1:08.7943 (120.359)
15. (4) Matheus Leist, Chevrolet, 1:08.9477 (120.091)
16. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 1:08.8700 (120.227)
17. (10) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 1:08.9630 (120.064)
18. (31) Patricio O’Ward, Chevrolet, 1:08.9011 (120.172)
19. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 1:09.0327 (119.943)
20. (7) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 1:08.9226 (120.135)
21. (20) Ed Jones, Chevrolet, 1:09.0441 (119.923)
22. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 1:09.0566 (119.902)
23. (26) Zach Veach, Honda, 1:09.4478 (119.226)
24. (81) Ben Hanley, Chevrolet, 1:10.4165 (117.586)