The Verizon IndyCar Series came within seconds of losing a second 2015 qualifying session to the elements, but thanks to some fast footwork by race control there was just enough time to get all three rounds in the books before they were forced to throw an early chequered flag and bring cars, drivers, teams and fans under cover of safety as electrical storms arrived over Barber Motorsports Park.
Even though the session was cut slightly short, the results of qualifying stood - unlike two weeks ago in Louisiana where similar inclement weather forced IndyCar to completely abandon qualifying halfway through and set the starting order according to the points standings instead. That didn't happen this week, and Helio Castroneves duly clinched his 43rd career pole in the open-wheel series, pushing him one step closer to motorsport icon Bobby Unser who holds third place in the all-time poles list with 49 starts at the front.
Castroneves' final round qualifying lap of 1:07.1925s (123.228mph) was set as rain started to fall, which meant that it fell someway short of toppling Scott Dixon's two-year-old qualifying record at the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course. However it was still good enough to put the Brazilian a comfortable 0.1908s ahead of his team mate Will Power, while Simon Pagenaud made it a Penske 1-2-3 with Ganassi's Scott Dixon inserting himself alongside the Frenchman on the second row of the grid.
CLICK: Full qualifying times from Barber Motorsports Park
"It's all about team effort, today is just another team effort," insisted Castroneves as he celebrated his first pole of the season, albeit the third in three races for Penske in 2015.
"You can see it's 1-2-3," Castroneves continued. "Juan Pablo is not there, but for us every practice is qualifying. That helped us to push ourselves to be in this position. It's not about because we have success here. I think it's part of it, but all the drivers as well, like Simon and Juan Pablo, they have their share. It's in the equipment. In the end of the day it's a team effort. Everyone is working hard."
The key to getting qualifying in the books was the decision by race control to move up the start of qualifying by ten minutes in response to radar images showing rain moving quickly into the area. Officials also tightened up the intervals between the different groups and rounds in order to do everything possible to get the session completed in time before the situation deteriorated too badly. All of this also spurred the drivers to get right down to work as soon as the green flag came out, and notably everyone kept it very clean with no one risking inadvertently causing any stoppages throughout any of the three rounds.
The session proved fairly disastrous for the Honda camp, which saw only two of its cars get through their first round groups. Graham Rahal succeeded in putting the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan car into the top six in group 1, while James Hinchcliffe similarly squeaked through in fifth place in group 2. However Andretti Autosport failed to get a single one of its cars through to the second round, and AJ Foyt Racing also came away empty handed.
"For sure it's been a disappointing day," said Andretti's Carlos Munoz. "Unfortunately, we were not really competitive in any of the sessions. It's really strange, because as a team, previously we've been really quick at this track. We just don't have the balance right."
"We're just struggling right now with understeer," agreed Marco Andretti. "We're all trying to find the sweet spot, and I don't think we have yet. We always have decent race cars here, but we have to see. We've been on new tyres all day today so we have to see where the degradation goes."
Ryan Hunter-Reay put his failure to progress down to problems with a slow car in the form of Dale Coyne Racing's Francesco Dracone which thwarted his attempt to put in an improved lap near the end of his group.
"We just caught slower traffic there," he said. "I gave [Dracone] a huge gap to begin with knowing he was off pace, and I just caught him over and over again every lap. It's our own fault for putting ourselves out there in that position though
"We're all in the same boat," he added of the team's current troubles. "We're all trying really hard to make it better. I love this race track and it's a shame we're not getting around here quicker right now, but we'll be working hard at it, that's for sure."
By contrast with Andretti's headaches, Chip Ganassi Racing got all four of its cars through to the second round - including rookie driver Sage Karam who is back in the #8 after sitting out last week's race at Long Beach in preference to Sebastian Saavedra.
"I really just spent the morning getting comfortable in the car again and adjusting," he said. "My confidence is back up from the last time we tested here. Qualifying was a big step in the right direction for us. It was the first time we got out of Q1 so that was huge. I'm happy with the way things are going and can't wait to get the race started and see what the car can do."
Penske weren't quite able to match Ganassi's feat of getting their entire four-car line-up through the first round, as Juan Pablo Montoya continued to struggle to find the optimal set-up at Barber this weekend which meant that he ended up in eighth place in his first round group and out of rest of the qualifying.
"Nothing too terribly wrong with the #2 Hawk Performance Chevy in qualifying, we just struggled to put a good lap together," he said. "We did have a few issues with the balance of the car. It is what it is. It's tough because on these tires you really only get one lap and I missed it on that lap. The Hawk Performance Chevy is good, though, and we'll do our best to pick our way through the field and towards the front."
As round 2 got underway, the weather front were closing in on the area around the race track, and video screens around the circuit were advising spectators to leave the grandstands and seek shelter because of the threat of lightning. Desperate to avoid the second successive qualifying wash-out, race control kept the session going and managed to get the top 12 shoot-out in the books with Power leading the way with a lap of 1:06.8050s (123.943mph), which proved to be the closest anyone got this weekend to toppling Dixon's qualifying record of 1:06.7750s. Both of the other Penske cars still in the running also made it through to the final round along with the Ganassi cars of Dixon and Tony Kanaan and CFH Racing's Josef Newgarden once again progressing into the Firestone Fast 6.
"We're getting there," said Newgarden after qualifying. "We definitely didn't have enough for Helio Castroneves, Will Power, or Scott Dixon. We aren't right up there in pole territory, but at least we are consistently in Fast Six territory. That's a good improvement for us and I am excited about that."
Eliminated at the end of round 2 were both surviving Hondas and the two Ganassi drivers, Karam and Charlie Kimball, along with KVSH Racing's Sebastien Bourdais and Newgarden's CFH team mate Luca Filippi.
"It has been a good team effort with both cars in the top ten and Josef Newgarden making it to the Fast 6," noted Filippi. "I thought we could have qualified a little higher than ninth, but it is a good place to start the race. I am sure we will have a strong pace tomorrow and be able to build on that. We are looking forward to a good result for both cars!"
With the weather now really starting to crowd in overhead, race control got the final round underway as soon as possible and the drivers were quickly out to set banker laps as the rain started to make itself felt. Once that was done it was clear that the track was now too wet for anyone to improve on their opening gambit, and with the threat of storms now very apparent IndyCar decided that discretion was the better part of valour and threw the chequered flag a minute and a half early so that it was officially in the books. That meant Dixon's 2013 record was unbroken, and pole went to Castroneves after he edged his team mate Power by almost two tenths.
"We were very strong in qualifying, but unfortunately it rained before the end," said Power. "I just kick myself because the two laps I did there in the Fast Six I didn't go harder, but I'm very happy to be starting on the front row considering last week, he added, recalling how he'd been forced to start from 18th place at Long Beach after being caught at by a red flag in his qualifying group before he could get a fast lap time in.
"Starting up front is huge here - we can win from there," Power continued. "That's definitely the plan tomorrow. It's been a slow start to the season and I'm very determined to get that first win of the year. I've been knocking on the door so we'll see if we can get the Verizon car up there tomorrow."
Pagenaud made it a Penske 1-2-3 with Dixon having to settle for fourth place, while Newgarden and Kanaan get to share the third row of the grid for the start of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, which is scheduled to get the green flag on Sunday afternoon at 2.37pm (8.37pm BST).
"The Coke car felt pretty good early in the day and we unloaded fast off of the truck," said Dixon, who topped the first practice session on Saturday morning. "I think there is a little more pressure in getting up to speed quickly here as the weekend went from a traditional three-day format to a two-day format.
"Qualifying for us went well, and I understand they had to cut it just a bit short after the five minutes of guaranteed green-flag time had been satisfied," he noted. "Helio put up a great lap when it counted and we'll shoot at the top three Penske cars tomorrow."
With no weather problems expected on Sunday, there will be a half-hour morning warm-up session at 10am (4pm BST) to allow the teams to carry out any final race set-up tweaks..
See full qualifying times from Barber Motorsports Park