Newgarden to start from pole in Alabama, heavy rain forecast

Josef Newgarden affixes the Verizon P1 Award emblem to his car after winning the pole position for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (Photo courtesy: IndyCar Series/Chris Jones)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Josef Newgarden grinned when asked if a gloomy weather forecast made it more important to start up front.

“Yeah, for sure,” Newgarden said.

For sure, Newgarden will be the favorite Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, where he has won two of the past three years and will start from the pole. Newgarden edged fellow Team Penske driver Will Power in the final qualifying lap Saturday to earn the third pole position of his career.

He has never started the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama higher than third but has had plenty of success at the track a few hours from his Tennessee hometown.

Power fell just short of his fifth pole at the picturesque 17-turn, 2.3-mile road course, where heavy rain was forecast for Sunday afternoon.

“If it’s going to be wet all day (Sunday), you’re going to want to be out front,” said Newgarden, the defending race and series champion. “There’s no guarantee. You can be pretty terrible in the wet and go backward fast, but it helps.”

Penske has claimed pole eight times in nine years at Alabama. Newgarden turned in a fast lap of 1:07.4413, followed by Power (1:07.4541) and Sebastien Bourdais (1:07.533). Two-time Alabama winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Scott Dixon rounded out the top six.

Series points leader Alexander Rossi , who started and finished first at Long Beach, failed to make it to that point. He’ll start eighth.

Dixon has finished on the podium in seven of his eight starts at Barber with five runners-up but hasn’t won yet.

Hinchcliffe has some experience winning a rainy day race in case the weather proves as dicey as forecast. He won at NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015 when more than half the rain-shortened race was run under caution.

Hinchcliffe said if conditions are as bad as forecast it becomes “kind of like the biggest lottery in a lot of ways.”

“Driving IndyCar in the rain is one of the most challenging things that we ever have to deal with,” he said. “The big thing is trying to back off. You want to be a lot smoother on the steering wheel, a lot softer on the pedals.”

As it turns out, most teams missed a chance to operate the new cars on a wet track at Barber during an open test in March. Only Helio Castroneves ran laps after the rains came, and he’s not competing in this race.

“We had an open test day here and everyone backed out when it rained (thinking) it’s not going to be wet … so here we are,” Power said.

Bourdais has his best starting position at Barber on the heels of a frustrating 13th-place finish at Long Beach.

“Every weekend is a new beginning,” Bourdais said.

Here are some things to know about qualifying and Sunday’s race:

WHO’S IN

Nine of the 12 drivers advancing from the initial two qualifying sessions were from Andretti Autosport (four), Penske (three) and Chip Ganassi Racing (two). Everyone from those teams advanced.

WHO’S OUT

Graham Rahal , who’s third in the point standings, failed to make it out of the first qualifying session and starts 15th.

PENSKE POWER

Team Penske has been downright dominant at Barber — particularly counting Newgarden’s first win with the former CFH Racing. Penske drivers collectively have won five of the first eight races in Alabama. Castroneves won the debut race in 2010 followed by consecutive wins by Power. Simon Pagenaud won in 2015 in between Newgarden’s two victories.

PASSING CHANCES

The Barber track seems to have become a favorite among drivers, despite a reputation for being a hard place to pass. Rahal isn’t quite sure that rep is deserved.

“It always makes for a great race, actually,” he said. “So I’ve always been confused why people think that. That is the reputation it generally has, but I think it’s one of our better races from a passing opportunity perspective.”

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org

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