Even so, Helio still looked happier than the Ganassi duo of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, who made it through to the final Firestone Fast Six round of qualifying but ended up having to settle for occupying the third row of the grid side-by-side for the start of Sunday's GroPro Indy Grand Prix.
"It's good to be in the Firestone Fast Six with as competitive as the series is now, but this is not the end of the Firestone Fast Six you want to be in," admitted Franchitti. "We'll try to make some stuff happen tomorrow."
"It was okay," shrugged Dixon. "I'm happy with the balance. The balance of the car is good. I think we're just lacking grip. If you look at turn 7 and 9 we're missing quite a bit of speed there in those sections. Some of that might be me. We're missing like a half a tenth to a tenth throughout the whole track which is a bit frustrating."
The first group in round 1 was even more sluggish getting underway than usual, with James Hinchcliffe the first car out after half the 15 minute session had already expired. By the time the chequered flag dropped on the session, Ryan Briscoe topped the timesheets with a lap of 1:17.5515s (110.713mph) half a second clear of Dario Franchitti. Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson also made it through, and Hinchcliffe himself squeaked into round 2 by just 0.0249 over Sebastian Saavedra. The biggest name to fall at the first hurdle was Graham Rahal, who ended the session six hundredths of a second behind Saavedra in eighth.
"We're disappointed in today's qualifying run," said Rahal after his early exit. "We were bumped out by a slim margin but that's all it takes. We had a really strong weekend and then it comes down to qualifying and we just didn't have enough. We just have to go back and figure out what's going on."
The second group was slightly quicker to get underway, with Mike Conway and James Jakes first to get out on track; however, neither driver made it through to the next round. Predictably, Will Power topped the session with a lap of 1:17.7803s (110.388mph) over six tenths clear of Ryan Hunter-Reay. Also progressing from the round were Simon Pagenaud, Alex Tagliani and Scott Dixon, with Rubens Barrichello securing the final berth in round 2 by edging out Marco Andretti. Oriol Servia failed to progress, and Tony Kanaan was another surprise early exit.
"I had a solid first timed lap and the car felt good," explained Kanaan. "On my next lap I was running three tenths of a second faster, but I got blocked going into turn four. That pretty much ended any chance of getting into the second round of qualifying."
Round 2 comprehensively confirmed Penske's form at Sonoma for the second year running, although for once Power had to settle for second best to his team mate Ryan Briscoe whose lap of 1:17.5378s (110.733mph) was 0.0453s faster than the championship leader could manage. Sebastian Bourdais was the fastest non-Penske runner in third, pushing Dixon down to fourth ahead of the final member of the Penske squad, Helio Castroneves. Dario Franchitti made it into the top six by the skin of his teeth just 0.0169 ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will be the highest-placed of the Andretti Autosport drivers at a circuit that they admit they struggle at.
"Historically this has not been one of our best tracks, and considering how we struggled yesterday, we shouldn't be bummed by seventh," said Hunter-Reay as he climbed out of the #28.
"Two of our wins came when we qualified seventh, so we know we can do it from there, but it's still frustrating to miss the Fast Six," he continued. "We had five laps of fuel in the car, but we had trouble with the starter on pit lane, so that meant we only had time for four laps in that session. We missed sixth by a few hundredths, so that fuel level would have made the difference in the lap time."
Also missing out on progressing were road course specialists Simon Pagenaud and Rubens Barrichello.