Will Power topped the times of every stage in which he ran in Saturday afternoon qualifying for the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway in California, as he led the Penske team to a 1-2-3 whitewash and domination of the starting grid on Sunday.
"Qualifying is very important here," said Power after setting a scintillating laptime of 1:18.6017s in the Firestone Fast Six stage of qualifying. "A Penske 1-2-3 is good - and we have two guys between the Target cars.
"We were a little concerned after practice and didn't know if we had the pace or not," he admitted. "But we made some good changes before qualifying. We were able to put a perfect lap together that was mistake-free and hit all of the sectors."
"I'm so happy to be starting on the front row!" exclaimed Helio Castroneves, clearly thrilled to qualify in second place albeit 0.4899s off Power's stunning lap time. "It has been awhile since I've started up front and here and it feels awesome. It is a great result for Team Penske to start 1-2-3 ... Tomorrow we just have to go out there and finish the job and bring home a strong result for the team."
"The hard work of Team Penske is paying off and now," agreed Ryan Briscoe, who will start from third place on the grid. "This is a great achievement from our standpoint of the #6 crew. We didn't have the best of days yesterday as we had issues with the brakes. We came on strong today and were fighting for the top spot all day long. It feels great and hopefully we can move up a little tomorrow as well."
Dario Franchitti had to settle for fourth place ahead of his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon, but Dario was disappointed with his car's handling on the soft 'red wall' tyres after he had put in such promisingly strong performances on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning on the harder 'black wall' compound.
"We tried putting the red tyres on and the car was terrible," he said. "We tried to put up a fast lap and get the time we needed. We made a couple of changes throughout the session but just didn't quite have it. We have a lot of work to do tonight because we are going to have to use the red tyres for one segment of the race tomorrow."
For Dixon, the problem was one of track temperature. "The cars were good this morning in cool weather but once the track heated up we really struggled with the grip," he said. "We obviously messed up quite a bit there. I think this is just about our worst qualifying on road courses this year."
It was a difficult day for Andretti Autosport who saw only Mike Conway progress to round 2. Danica Patrick and Ryan Hunter-Reay surprisingly failed to progress from an admittedly fiercely competitive group 1, while Marco Andretti was just pipped at the end in group 2 by Dreyer & Reinbold stand-in, former Jordan F1 driver Giorgio Pantano.
"We're really struggling a bit with the car," said Andretti, who will start from 14th place in the race. "It was too conservative for qualifying. For qualifying you have to make the car turn and the Snapple car wasn't turning today."
"We had some issues in the first round of qualifying that we really hadn't seen before," confessed Hunter-Reay, who slumped to 19th on the grid. "We have to get it figured out for Sunday's race. Sunday is really the only day that counts."
"I'm sorry that qualifying didn't work out for the rest of the guys because they took my direction on the setup," said Conway, who had his best qualifying outing in some time this week by clinching seventh place on the grid. "They didn't seem to have a good run. The track in qualifying wasn't the same as practice."
Pantano finished in a decent 11th place in qualifying, but said he was disappointed with that. "I'm not that happy, to be honest. I was convinced that we would be in a better position," he said afterwards. "This was my first qualifying after six years, tomorrow is a long race tomorrow and we will work hard to bring home a good result."
Just ahead of Pantano on the grid is his D&R team mate Ana Beatriz, who put in an excellent time in her round 1 group. While she couldn't recreate that form in round 2 she still qualified in a career-best tenth place on the grid.
"I'm really happy that we were able to make it into the fast twelve," said Beatriz. "We came to the test [held at Infineon last week] with a couple of ideas and we tried different things that helped us find another fast way. I'm really glad that we found it and that we came here and were competitive ... I'm happy with where we ended up."
KV Racing Technology found their recent strong form had suddenly deserted them, as only EJ Viso sneaked through from his round 1 group in which Tony Kanaan was disappointed to finished only 11th, while Takuma Sato finished eighth in group 2.
"I am extremely disappointed," said Sato unequivocally. "We have tried several changes, but they didn't give us enough speed."
"It's just disappointing," said an equally downbeat Kanaan. "We couldn't find a good balance for the car both yesterday and today and that translated to a bad qualifying run."
"So far this weekend has been very challenging for the team," said Viso, the only man with slight cause for optimism after claiming ninth place on the grid for Sunday's race. "This is a very difficult track to come up with the right setup. It requires us to sacrifice something in one corner to gain in another, so we still need to try and find the right solution."
Simon Pagenaud will start from 22nd in the race, assuming (as seems highly likely) that he is still sitting in for Simona de Silvestro in the HVM #78 tomorrow. De Silvestro has been sidelined by immigration problems, with reports suggesting that the "technical issue" now in the hands of lawyers is a single immigration official who refused to accept de Silvestro's reason for recent trips to Canada as being down to her profession as 'IndyCar driver.' He decided that she was using an assumed name, voided her visa and put her on a plane back to Switzerland which could put her participation even in next week's maiden Baltimore street course race in doubt.
Pagenaud just saw off Ho-Pin Tung in group 2, as Tung finally achieves his ambition of making the IndyCar grid at last - the first Chinese driver to do so. "The car handled well and I felt comfortable completing my first qualifying attempt in IndyCar," said Tung. "Tomorrow will be a big day for me making my first real IndyCar debut and I hope to make a strong run here in Sonoma."
Martin Plowman, who was fastest in the morning practice session after opting to use up a set of his limited soft compound 'red wall' tyres, didn't make it through from round 1 but still qualified a satisfying 15th position in his second IndyCar outing. Plowman explained that it was down to confidence.
"I would say, after this morning, we had the confidence going into qualifying knowing that I could extract time out of the red tyres, which was my problem at Mid-Ohio," he said, explaining why the team had opted to run the red tyres in the morning. "To get our times like that on the red tyres was a big step forward for me."
Admitting that "our realistic goal was to get into the top-12 and break into the second qualifying group," he said it was disappointing to just fall short. "We missed our progression to the second group by seven-hundredths, which is a big step forward for me from Mid-Ohio, but it's a bit frustrating for me to have missed it by that little bit here today."
Up at the front of the grid, Will Power was making it clear that he was by no means giving up on the championship fight just yet.
"We need to execute this weekend and just keep finishing ahead of Dario. It's as simple as that," he said. While Dario had a big lead right now, "that could turn around in one weekend. Obviously, if we have a bad weekend and he is 70 points ahead with four weekends to go it will be tough ... near impossible."
He added, "It's going to come down to who is going to make the least amount of mistakes" - and Power intends that to be him from here on.
Full qualifying times and positions