BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Will Power and Penske Racing are back in a familiar position at Barber Motorsports Park: Starting in the pole position at a track where they dominated until last year.
Power, a two-time winner, came out on top in a Fast Six qualifying Saturday that featured five drivers from IndyCar powerhouse teams Penske, Andretti Autosport and Ganassi Racing.
“I was thinking it was going to be very tough to beat the Andretti boys, they’ve been so fast around here,” Power said. “But I was able to do one lap each time on my tires, so I had two shots at it. It was awfully close. Nothing between everyone.
“But very happy to be on pole. It was definitely the aim. Puts you in a much better position to keep out of trouble on the start.”
There was plenty of trouble at Long Beach two weeks ago, and Scott Dixon was the only Fast Six driver not caught up in it.
Most of the drivers have cleared the air, but Simon Pagenaud has said the tone might have been set for the season when he was spun from behind by Power.
Ryan Hunter-Reay’s attempt to pass Josef Newgarden on a tight turn also collected seven drivers, including Andretti teammate James Hinchcliffe.
Power expects some clarification of what constitutes “clean racing” at the pre-race drivers meeting with race director Beaux Barfield.
“What happened between Pagenaud and myself, I feel bad,” the Australian driver said. “He had every right to be really angry.
“I think the payback system is not going to work very well for us with these cars and the tracks we go to. It will become dangerous. We’ll talk about it in the drivers meeting, come up with some compromise.”
Mike Conway won the tension-filled race at Long Beach but will start in the 21st spot.
Hinchcliffe qualified second, as he did at Long Beach, while defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay starts third.
Hinchcliffe was stranded beside the track for most of last year’s race after damage on the first lap. He also started on the front row in 2012 and finished 12th.
“Kind of feels like always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s my sixth front-row start and never had a pole yet.”
Newgarden is fourth and his team with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing might as well represent the underdogs in the group that also includes Ganassi’s Scott Dixon and Penske’s Helio Castroneves.
Power and Castroneves combined to claim the pole and the win in each of the first three years at the track. For Power, that’s three pole starts in five years at Barber. Hunter-Reay broke the team’s stranglehold last year, starting and finishing first.
Much of the weekend’s buzz has been about the impact of temperatures that have soared since testing in February, making for a slicker track.
“Everybody is going to be swatting at flies the whole day in the car,” Hunter-Reay said. “Trying to keep it on the racetrack is going to be tough. We’re all going to have that.
“I think it should be a pretty interesting race because of it. I think it’s anybody’s race. “
The only potential drama in qualifying came when Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais lost his fastest two laps for interfering with Hunter-Reay in the second session. Hunter-Reay said Bourdais’ team didn’t alert their driver that he was coming up behind.
“He was in the third gear or second gear in a six-gear corner and he was coming in that lap,” Hunter-Reay said. “I know Bourdais; he’s pretty switched on. So either he did it intentionally or he had no idea I was there, and it was the latter. He said his team didn’t tell him.
“It’s all right. We still ended up in the Fast Six, so no big deal.”
Dixon was in contention late in Long Beach before he stopped for fuel as a precaution. Now, he’s seeking to break through at Barber, where he has been the runner-up in each of the first four races.
“I think two of the second-place finishes we had before were hard-earned and we were pretty happy with it,” he said. “The other two we lost on a last pit exchange or a strategy issue.”
Juan Pablo Montoya starts eighth, his best qualifying spot since moving from NASCAR back to open-wheel racing this season.
“We’re gaining on it,” Montoya said. “I think we have a really good race car and it’s amazing because every practice is better. Every qualifying is better. It’s just a matter of getting the hang of it.”