BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Takuma Sato, teammate Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing outshined the powerhouse teams at Barber Motorsports Park.
In qualifying, at least.
Sato claimed the eighth pole of his career on Saturday and the first since Pocono in 2017, and Rahal had the second-fastest qualifying time for Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
“Before qualifying, we never thought we could lock into the front row,” said Japan’s Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner. “We knew it could be competitive.”
It is the first time a Bobby Rahal team has had a 1-2 start since 2005 at Chicagoland, with Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice.
“You’re talking a long time ago,” Graham Rahal said.
Team Penske was shut out of the Fast Six qualifying group for the first time since Long Beach in 2014, and Andretti Autosport also didn’t have a driver make it that far.
Penske had dominated at the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course, with six victories in nine years, but the team had rare qualifying struggles.
That included two-time winner and four-time pole sitter Will Power, two-time defending champion and series points leader Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud, who won in 2016.
“I think you’ve seen all weekend the times are incredibly close,” said James Hinchcliffe, who will start fourth. “A track like Barber, it’s so easy to make a small mistake that costs a lot of time, all the fast corners.
“It’s more surprising that those guys just didn’t hit it, but it’s not surprising that when you don’t, this is the result,” he added.
Five-time race runner-up Scott Dixon qualified third, followed by Hinchcliffe, Sebastien Bourdais and Spencer Pigot.
Rookie Colton Herta will start ninth two weeks after becoming IndyCar’s youngest winner. He turned 19 on March 30.
The big winner Saturday was Bobby Rahal & Co.
“Now we have to finish the job,” Bobby Rahal said. “Historically, we’ve had good races here. We have yet to start where we are. I think by all rights we should be competitive and in the hunt for the win.”
Pigot matches his best starting position for Ed Carpenter Racing. He also started sixth at the Indianapolis 500 last year. He was the only Chevrolet in the top six; Hondas claimed the first five spots.
Besides the Penske drivers, two-time winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi were also among those failing to make the final qualifying group. Hunter-Reay will start 11th and Rossi eighth.
“The whole team has fallen in competitiveness as every session has gone on,” Hunter-Reay said. “So, unfortunately, everyone is sitting right now in eighth, 11th and 13th. 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 Dixon.”
Pagenaud, Power and Newgarden are all former pole sitters and winners at Barber. Pagenaud won after starting from the pole in 2016 and Newgarden did it last year at the track only a few hours from his Tennessee hometown. Newgarden, who will start 16th, has three wins at the track in the past four years.
Power, who will start seventh, had started on the pole in each of the first two races. Pagenaud qualified 14th.
Newgarden also struggled in practice sessions after coming in with an 18-point series lead over Herta.
“We’ve just got to focus on ourselves right now and find a cure,” Newgarden said. “I don’t know what it is right now.”