Rain stopped by Saturday morning but fog came to Barber Motorsports Park where the IZOD IndyCar Series is preparing for Sunday's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, a 90-lap bout around the track's permanent 2.38-mile, 17-turn road course.
There was only time for an installation lap in the morning as the schedule is very tight for the Indy cars, who cede to Grand-Am's Rolex Sports Car Series for the balance of the afternoon. That made the three-round knock-out qualifying session a true crap shoot for everyone involved. Friday's sessions had been curtailed by rainy conditions - and thunderstorms - while the fog ruined a planned half-hour pre-qualifying practice.
Once Firestone Fast Six qualifying was completed, Helio Castroneves nabbed the top spot, keeping the momentum going in his No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone Indy car after winning the first race of the year last week at St Petersburg. Using a scuffed set of Firestone's red, alternate tire in the third, six-driver shootout Castroneves turned a quick time of 1:10.477 to beat fellow Chevy driver James Hinchcliffe in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport machine (1:10.522).
Castroneves, earning his 37th pole position was in the first of two initial qualifying groups and cited understeer that had him third in his group (behind Mike Conway and Graham Rahal). "Then my team made some changes, put that baby in shape and it was looking good in the second segment," he said. He credited the scuffed set of Firestone alternates as being "able to give me Top 6 - they have a lot of grip."
This is Hinchcliffe's second straight Firestone Fast Six appearance and his best qualifying effort since joining the series at this race last year. "It's a great result after the way practice went yesterday, with it being rained out and then being 'fogged out' this morning. We only had 14 dry laps coming into qualifying so we knew we had to take a bit of a swing at it," Hinch admitted. "To miss [pole] by half a tenth is just gutting, but it's still a great result for us."
Despite stopping on his final lap in the third qualifying session, Scott Dixon earned third on the 26-car grid at 1:10.529 in his Honda-powered Team Target Dallara, while Mike Conway (1:10.879) gave AJ Foyt Racing its best starting spot of fourth on a road/street course since 2007, when Darren Manning earned P5 in St Petersburg. "We're definitely moving in the right direction," Conway said. "We made some good changes overnight and they certainly worked today."
JR Hildebrand took fifth at :11.075 and Tony Kanaan starts sixth at 1:11.374, both using Chevy engines. EJ Viso (Chevy), Graham Rahal (Honda) and Will Power (Chevy) are sixth through ninth, the 2011 Barber winner losing his fast lap by passing on a red flag condition, brought out by Ryan Hunter-Reay (Chevy), who strayed off-track and bounced back on. Simon Pagenaud starts tenth in his Honda-powered Dallara.
Power set the fastest qualifying lap in his first group of 1:0.852 but was frustrated by the balance of the procedure. "I know INDYCAR threw the red flag there but I'm not sure why they didn't allow our fast lap. It's definitely going to be tough starting ninth tomorrow, but we know we've got a fast car. We have to have a good start and be strong on the restarts and, hopefully work out way up front," he said.
Hunter-Reay is 11th with no speed/time and Ryan Briscoe had a shifting problem that didn't allow him out in the second qualifying session. One big surprise is the absence in the second and third shootouts, for a second week in a row of reigning champ Dario Franchitti, who admits his Honda-powered DW12 Dallara just doesn't have the pace here at Barber's undulating track. "Lack of balance is what we dealt with." Franchitti didn't even make it out of the first group and starts an uncharacteristic 18th.
Justin Wilson recovered from his engine problems on Friday (no Honda swap on his Dale Coyne Racing car but the crew stayed and worked well past midnight) to help him earn 19th on the grid, while two drivers have 10-spot grid penalties - that really don't matter because they didn't get sufficient track time to improve, as did Pagenaud last week: Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servia will occupy the final row as both of their cars required new Lotus engines, Tagliani's between races and Servia's late last night and into this morning.
A 30-minute warmup is on the schedule for Sunday morning with the race set to take green flags at 2PM EDT and is telecast live on NBC Sports network.