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Rahal Letterman Lanigan sweeps Barber qualifying, with Takuma Sato claiming NTT P1 Award

by racedaysaeditor | Posted on Saturday, April 6th, 2019

Courtesy of the NTT IndyCar Series

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – It took nearly 14 years, but Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing owns the front row in qualifying again for an NTT IndyCar Series race.

Takuma Sato. Photo by Chris Owens

Takuma Sato captured the NTT P1 Award and Graham Rahal qualified second as the teammates locked down the top starting positions for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst. The pole position was the eighth of Sato’s 10-year NTT IndyCar Series career and first on the challenging permanent road course at Barber Motorsports Park.

“This is absolutely a team effort,” Sato said. “To make it a 1-2, this is a dream result. The engineers work so hard along with the boys. Fantastic efforts. I’m really proud of them.”

HONDA INDY GRAND PRIX OF ALABAMA: Qualifying results

Takuma Sato. Photo by Joe Skibinski

Driving the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda, Sato turned a lap of 1 minute, 8.5934 seconds (120.711 mph) in the Firestone Fast Six, the last of three qualifying rounds. It earned the 42-year-old from Tokyo his first pole position since Pocono Raceway in 2017 and his first on any NTT IndyCar Series permanent road course.

“This is my first road-course pole position,” the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner said. “I had done it on a street course but not a road course. I dreamed for ages to do this. Today, I think everything came together and I’m so thankful to the whole team.”

Rahal, in the No. 15 One Cure Honda, was second quick at 1:08.6971 (120.529 mph), giving Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing its first qualifying 1-2 since rookie Danica Patrick and 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice accomplished the feat at Chicagoland Speedway in September 2005.

Takuma Sato. Photo by Chris Owens

“I tell you, a great performance today by the team – all weekend, really,” said Bobby Rahal, the RLL co-owner whose team notched its 31st pole in Indy car history and first since Graham Rahal did it at the first race of Detroit’s Belle Isle doubleheader in 2017. 

“I think they called the tires right at the right time, everybody got a clear track, and in the end, it was all about how fast can you go. … We’ve got to feel pretty excited about (the race) and I told Takuma and Graham, ‘Let’s get through Turn 1 and then we’ll go racing.'”

The RLL duo will lead the 24-car field to the green flag in the 90-lap race, the 10th annual NTT IndyCar Series event to take place on the rolling and technical 17-turn, 2.3-mile circuit in Alabama. Live coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Graham Rahal. Photo by Matt Fraver

“I think we’ve had good races here in the past,” said Graham Rahal, who finished second at Barber in 2015 and ’16, “but we’ve never started anywhere near here. Hopefully, tomorrow can be a pretty straightforward, really strong day for us.”

Scott Dixon, the reigning and five-time series champion will start third following a lap of 1:08.8081 (120.335 mph) in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Dixon has finished on the podium seven times in nine previous Barber starts, but never has won the race.

James Hinchcliffe, who had set the fastest lap in practice prior to qualifying, qualified fourth in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, with a lap of 1:08.8476 (120.266 mph). Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan’s Sebastien Bourdais was fifth in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda (1:09.0189), ahead of Spencer Pigot, who reached the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in his four-year career and qualified sixth in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet (1:09.6074).

Spencer Pigot. Photo by Joe Skibinski

“The car was at its best in qualifying, especially the first two rounds,” Pigot said. “Nice to have that progression and the ability to get the most out of the car. … Overall, happy with our performance, happy for everyone at Ed Carpenter Racing, Autogeek, to be in the Fast Six. 

“Looking for a bit more tomorrow. Looking forward to fighting with all these guys from the get-go.”

Noticeably absent from the Firestone Fast Six were drivers from Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. Will Power, who won the NTT P1 Award at the first two NTT IndyCar Series races this season, was the top Penske qualifier in seventh, with teammates Simon Pagenaud 14th and Josef Newgarden 16th. It marked the first time since the Long Beach race in 2014 that no Team Penske driver advanced to the final qualifying round on a road or street course.

Josef Newgarden leads Max Chilton. Photo by Matt Fraver

“We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just didn’t have enough speed overall to move on,” said Newgarden, the two-time defending Barber race winner who takes an 18-point championship lead over Colton Herta into the race. “I have all the confidence in the world in our Team Penske guys to figure it out. 

“This is why you have a great team. We’ll work on it tonight and we’ll come back tomorrow and be ready to go in the race.”

Alexander Rossi was the best Andretti qualifier in eighth position and Ryan Hunter-Reay was 11th. The teammates had advanced to the Firestone Fast Six in each of the first two races this season. Rookie sensation Herta, who became the youngest Indy car winner in history on March 24 at Circuit of The Americas, will start ninth in the No. 88 GESS International Honda for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

A final 30-minute warmup practice at Barber is set for 12:10 p.m. ET Sunday and will livestream on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.

‘What They’re Saying’ from Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet): “We gave it all we had in the Fitzgerald USA Chevrolet, but we just didn’t have enough to advance. We are kind of scratching our heads as to why, but we just didn’t have enough speed overall to move on. I have all the confidence in the world in our Team Penske guys to figure it out. This is why you have a great team. We’ll work on it tonight and we’ll come back tomorrow and be ready to go in the race.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We just finished qualifying here at Barber. I think we had a great qualifying. We finished eighth in our group, so we’re probably going to be starting around 15th or 17th tomorrow, so looking forward to it. I think from where we started the weekend on Friday, we definitely already made some progress. We still have a warmup to go tomorrow before the race and looking forward to doing a great job here again. ”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “Fourth is the worst we’ve been all weekend, which is a crazy thing to say. In one sense, we’re obviously thankful for that. The Arrow car has been great right off the truck. Honestly, I feel bad for the guys because we had a really strong car and I made a mistake in that first run in (the Firestone Fast Six), and that was our better set of tires. We put the good ones on first and tried to just do one and done and I screwed up coming out of Turn 17. I’m going to be kicking myself on that one for a while because I know it cost us a good shot at pole. We can race from the second row. The Arrow guys have been great in the pits all year long, and it is a long race here at Barber. We just need to keep our heads down, be smart in the race and hopefully make up for it.”

MARCUS ERICSSON (No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “It was not a great session, obviously. We were out in (Round 1) again, so that was very disappointing. The Arrow car felt quite good, but we are not quick enough to transfer so we need to dig into that. Again, we know we have a good race car; we’ve shown that all year. You just have to trust in that, but obviously, we will be starting further back than we would’ve liked. Big thanks to the Arrow guys for rebuilding the car after the incident in P3. They did a great job to get the car back together and ready for qualifying.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was OK, but we were always chasing the number one spot considering practices and just how the car felt. The team made a few changes over the night to make it a little more drivable and somewhere we could get some more out of. And even in the warmer conditions in the afternoon, which we really struggled with yesterday, I think we got it. Starting third, I think we can definitely win from there. Great show for Honda, obviously a home race for them, so hopefully, we can get to that elusive top spot in Alabama with the PNC Bank car.” 

FELIX ROSENQVIST (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It wasn’t what we expected in the NTT DATA car today. It’s kind of been a difficult weekend so far. Going on the blacks (Firestone primary tires) in qualifying felt OK and it looked like we wouldn’t have a tough time to make it through because I think I was P7 or P8 already, then. And then on the reds (Firestone alternate tires), I improved my time, but I think the others improved more. It didn’t really feel that bad, I was quite happy with the car, but still, it wasn’t quick, so we’ll have to analyze tonight and see.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I aborted the lap because I pushed wide in Turn 17, but I shouldn’t have. When I think about it, you’re only a tenth down on the eight-five (1:08.5) I did. If I just would have done an eight-seven, I would have been fine. That was my bad. We struggled all weekend. It’s a tough track to pass on, so it would have been nice to start in the Firestone Fast Six. There are some good guys out there and we’re going to have to work harder to beat them in the Verizon Chevy. It’s been a tough weekend with some of the practice sessions being so short. We’ll have a good think about it for the race and see what we can come up with.”
 
TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “The struggles continue. We are trying to improve. It was a very difficult race for us here last year. The field is much closer today and we feel like we’re closer, but it doesn’t translate to the position on track, so we still have a lot of work to do for tomorrow.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 One Cure Honda): “Well, I think overall, we got a little bit better everywhere. The one sector (where we were losing time yesterday) might still be a little bit not perfect, I would say, maybe a little thorn in our side. But typically, I think the guys did a tremendous job today. This morning, our time and our finishing position, which ended up in the gravel, is not indicative of our pace and we felt that. Did we feel we had the front row locked out? Probably not. But the really good sign of this, I think, is that our cars are clearly pretty consistent with tire wear from first run to second run on those reds (Firestone alternate tires). I’m excited. I think we’re in a good position as we go forward. I think we’ve had good races here in the past, but we’ve never started anywhere near here. Hopefully, tomorrow can be a pretty straightforward, really strong day for us.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 SealMaster Honda): “Overall, I’m pretty happy with fifth. I was happy the No. 18 SealMaster Honda made it into the Firestone Fast Six, but I am not happy that I couldn’t fight for the pole. It’s been very close all weekend. The conditions changed a lot and I’m just not getting a good feel for what the tires need.  We’ll keep trying and see what we can come up with for the race tomorrow.”

SANTINO FERRUCCI (No. 19 David Yurman Honda): “I can’t thank my No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing, David Yurman crew enough today. We’ve had a good car all weekend so far and it deserved to be in the Firestone Fast Six today. Unfortunately, I didn’t put the lap together at the end and we ended up P10. This crew has worked really hard and deserved an even better starting position, but that said, I’m confident we can have a really good race and move up the field when it really counts. I’m super excited for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Scuderia Corsa Chevrolet): 
“Session to session, we have really struggled with getting anything to be consistent with the car. Qualifying was frustrating; around here it’s very difficult to pass, so it would have been much better to start further up. However, things can change for tomorrow’s race with strategy and maybe even the weather. We’ve got to do the best we can and make the best of every opportunity. We’ll push on from here.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet): 
“I am really happy with the Autogeek Chevrolet. We were really competitive there in the first two rounds, we were P1 and P2. In the Firestone Fast Six, we got the order wrong – we probably should have run our sticker blacks (Firestone primary tires) then our scuffed reds (Firestone alternate tires), but that’s alright. It’s a bit of data we can save for the future. We’re really happy to qualify up front, but also a little bit dejected to have not had more there at the end. Overall, we are coming away with a lot of positives. We are definitely looking good for tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was definitely a tough qualifying session with a lot of champions in that second group. I felt like I gave it everything I had there, but we’re talking like five-hundredths of a second to try to transfer to the next round. We didn’t leave anything on the table, so we have a little bit more work to do to be ready for the race. Everyone on the Menards Chevrolet team will be focused on getting everything right tomorrow to get a good result.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda): 
“It’s been a frustrating day. This morning we couldn’t get the balance right after putting on new brakes – we just lost the balance and had to jump right into qualifying. I don’t think we made the right choices for the car for the qualifying session. We struggled with some understeer and once we put on the reds (Firestone alternate tires), I think we even went slower. We’re all a bit confused as to why that happened – it’s something we need to look at tonight.” 

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “It was a good effort all around by the team – I think we were all pretty good on blacks (Firestone primary tires). Unfortunately, we didn’t have a car balance quite sorted for reds (Firestone alternate tires). It’s disappointing that eighth is our best starting position here, so we’ll take some solace in that, but it’s disappointing to not transfer into the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We seemed to plateau from Practice 1 where we were fifth. The whole team has fallen in competitiveness as every session has gone on. 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 (Scott) Dixon. We’ll look at it tonight. Historically, this has been a strong track for us and it’s way too complicated out there for us right now, but we’ll work to find a solution and fight hard for the DHL team.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda, NTT P1 Award winner): “This is a dream result. We don’t really care which (teammate) is first; obviously, I do care that I am in front of Graham (Rahal, teammate), but this team is working so hard and sometimes a lucky break comes, but today we did everything together. This is a team effort. I’m really happy for both. Black (Firestone primary) tires and red (Firestone alternate) tires had a similar performance yesterday, but today, clearly the red tire was the faster one. I actually did try the black tire in the Firestone Fast Six to try and go again faster, but obviously, the red tire was much faster and in the end I was very happy with my lap.”
 
PATRICIO O’WARD (No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet): 
“We just haven’t really figured out the balance of the No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet. We worked on it with the blacks (Firestone primary tires), but we just couldn’t get it right with the reds (Firestone alternate tires). I’m really struggling with the reds for some reason. Either the front works and the rear doesn’t, or the rear does and front doesn’t – it’s just not a happy balance at all right now. We’re on pace with the blacks, but we just need to figure out how to make the reds work for us. At the end of the day, we’re just not where we want to be at all.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet): “Barber (Motorsports Park) is just proving how difficult and challenging it is. I felt pretty fired up for that one (lap), but I think I might’ve made a mistake in Turn 1. Around here, it’s so close and unless you give 100 percent, you’re not going to qualify up front, so I’m glad I gave it a big push and everything the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet had. Patricio O’Ward and I are very similar in time, so I think we got as much as we could out of both of the Carlin Chevrolets. It was a bit of a weird day with none of the (Team) Penske or Andretti (Autosport) cars making it into the Firestone Fast Six, so I think it’s just one of those times that if the track suits your car you’ll be up front and if it doesn’t, you won’t.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda): “We’ve made it no secret that transferring to the top 12 in qualifying is one of our goals, not just for this weekend, but the whole season. We did that today. I am disappointed in myself for how the second round (of qualifying) went. We started the lap well, but I tried to be a hero in Turn 1 and went off a little. The potential that we have is good. If we can continue that potential when we get to the track on Fridays, we would be in an even stronger position. It’s been a good day, but disappointed on how it finished. We are capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six.” 

COLTON HERTA (No. 88 GESS International Honda): “Another solid qualifying by the No. 88 GESS International team today. We’re going to start ninth in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama tomorrow. It’s not terrible, but it’s not where we’d like to be. We’d like to be in the Firestone Fast Six. I know we had the speed and the car is fast, but it just didn’t work out for us. Unfortunately, we were so close and we just needed that little bit to get back in, but the field is so tight that we didn’t make it. We have great pace and I think we have good old tire pace, too, so after we look at everything during tomorrow’s warmup, we’ll be ready to race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We were loose this morning and we moved into qualifying with a bit too much understeer. If we would’ve squeaked through, the rear was good enough that we would’ve had a pretty good margin to take out understeer. We missed the second round by four-hundredths (of a second) and we were under a tenth (of a second) behind (Alexander) Rossi. The field is so tight, and we were really hoping to secure a good starting position for the U.S. Concrete team, so it’s unfortunate that we just missed the second round.”

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