See full results from qualifying
After an uncharacteristic stumble at the last race in Long Beach, Will Power was back to his very best form in qualifying this weekend at Barber Motorsport Park ahead of Sunday afternoon's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
Power had few problems in the three-stage road course qualifying format, finishing second in his first round group to progress to the Top 12 and then the Firestone Fast Six, both of which he topped. An early banker lap in the final round proved sufficient to clinch pole position with a time of 1:08.3120s (121.209mph) on the 2.38-mile, 17-turn permanent circuit as he set his sights on a third career victory in the event.
"It's going to be a tough race. When it goes green, these temperatures are going to be very physical," Power said. "There will be a lot of traffic and a lot of marbles so we'll do everything we can to get the win. I love this place. It's an awesome track. Very technical. Got to be fast. Got to be great. Definitely going to be a good race."
Pole position came despite the Penske driver not leading any of the three practice sessions so far this weekend, which had instead been dominated by Andretti Autosport drivers James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay - the latter being last year's pole- and race-winner. The pair successfully clinched the next two spots on the starting grid for the 2014 race, with Hinchcliffe edging his team mate by just 0.0855 to earn himself a front row place for the green flag.
The pole shoot-out saw honours evenly divided between Penske and Andretti with both teams succeeding in getting two drivers apiece through to the final round. Scott Dixon was the sole Ganassi representative - Charlie Kimball, Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan all falling at the first hurdle - while Josef Newgarden impressed by making it through to round 3 and securing a second row start in fourth place alongside Hunter-Reay, ahead of Dixon and Helio Castroneves on row three.
The division of Honda and Chevrolet engines was evenly balanced among the top six, but Honda has a slight numerical advantage of seven to five in the top 12.
Times and speeds were significantly down on those from 2013, when Hunter-Reay's pole time was 1:07.0871s (123.422mph). That compared to the best time in any of the three rounds of qualifying this year which was Simon Pagenaud's round 1 effort of 1:08.2918s (121.244mph).
Full qualifying session results, including unofficial starting grid
In round 1, the first group consisted of all three Team Penske drivers plus both KV Racing entries. Among the former, Juan Pablo Montoya was the first to make a run on the soft option Firestone red-walled tyres to post a time of 1:09.5532s in the first half of the ten minute session. Once everyone moved to options for their own runs in the second half, times quickly tumbled with Sebastian Saavedra first into the 68s territory with a time of 1:08.9674s. Helio Castroneves soon tore off a half a second off that benchmark before Will Power pushed it down further to 1:08.2945s. Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports' Simon Pagenaud shaved another 0.0027s off that just moments later which stood as the best time of the session as the chequered flag came out. Pagenaud, Power, Montoya, Castroneves, Carlos Munoz and Sebastien Bourdais all progressed, while Saavedra, Carlos Huertas, Charlie Kimball, Oriol Servia and the underpowered Mike Conway all fell by the wayside.
The second group in round 1 saw three of the Ganassi cars going up against three of the Andretti Autosport entries, making it a tough round for others such as Josef Newgarden, Justin Wilson and Takuma Sato to break into the top six required to make it into round 2, but Dale Coyne Racing's Mikhail Aleshin made an early impression with a lap of 1:09.1428s by being the first to try out the option tyres. Once everyone else changed to the red-wall tyres the times again started to drop rapidly with Newgarden first to usurp Aleshin from the top with a lap of 1:08.7070s before James Hinchcliffe went 0.1477s faster still. Aleshin was certainly not going down without a fight, and his next run boosted him back into second position which he kept through to the chequered flag. That meant the Russian progressed to round 2 along with Hinchcliffe, Newgarden, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon, but Sato, Wilson, Graham Rahal, Ryan Briscoe and Jack Hawksworth were all eliminated as was Tony Kanaan who was clearly still not happy with the #10 car's set-up.
Round 2 saw the remaining 12 drivers go head-to-head for a place in the pole shoot-out. Aleshin quickly proved that his first round pace was no fluke by going top with a lap of 1:09.1708s, a tenth ahead of Montoya who was similarly on options for his first effort. Their times stood until two minutes to go to the end of the session, at which point Newgarden and Castroneves both went under the 69s mark to take the top two spots. Will Power then showed his hand by filing a claim to the top of the timing screens with a lap of 1:08.3657s, two hundredths faster than Newgarden. They proved to have the best two times of the session and progressed to the Firestone Fast Six along with Castroneves, Hinchcliffe, Dixon and Hunter-Reay while Munoz just missed out by four thousandths of a second; also among those missing out were Montoya, Andretti and Pagenaud. Aleshin failed to improve on his first flying lap and ended up in last place by the chequered flag, although he was later bumped up a spot again after Bourdais was penalised for contact with Hunter-Reay and dropped to 12th place after his two fastest laps were deleted.
The final round of qualifying saw a quiet start with none of the remaining half dozen cars overeager to get out on the track. Power was the first to record a banker time of 1:08.3120s, and Hunter-Reay next to post a time 0.1144s off the provisional pole. With less than three minutes remaining on the clock, Hinchcliffe displaced his team mate from second with a lap still three hundredths off Power's first flier. Subsequent late first runs from Newgarden, Dixon and Castroneves were unable to break into the top three, leaving Power with pole without the need to make another flying lap attempt, and Hinchcliffe joining him on the front row ahead of Hunter-Reay and Newgarden.
Full qualifying session times and results, plus unofficial starting grid