BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — It’s Romain Grosjean’s turn to start up front for Andretti Autosport.
The former Formula 1 driver and Swiss-born Frenchman is trying to duplicate teammate Kyle Kirkwood’s pole-to-win performance after claiming the pole position for Sunday’s IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park.
Grosjean emerged with his third pole and second of the season on Saturday after some of the biggest names failed to make it to the final round, including points leader and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, three-time champion Josef Newgarden and two-time winner Will Power.
Grosjean, who finished second to Kirkwood at Long Beach, won the pole for the opener at St. Petersburg but finished 18th after colliding with Scott McLaughlin. Now, he’ll look for his first IndyCar win on the physically challenging permanent road course.
If the 37-year-old is in a better mood at the track these days than 2022, it’s no surprise.
“I’m enjoying myself in the car, which last year was not the case,” said Grosjean, whose contract runs through this year. “Last year, I joined the team to try win races and poles and then win the championship. I was struggling with balance.
“I just couldn’t get (the car) to do what I wanted. That plays a big role in your personality.”
Grosjean produced a fast lap of 1 minute, 5.8396 seconds.
Hondas make up the front row. Alex Palou, who won at Barber in 2021 on his way to a series championship, qualified second. He qualified third in his first two visits to the picturesque track, finishing first and second. This is his first front-row start since last year’s Indy 500.
“I guess it’s the closest we have to Europe and that’s where I grew up racing,” Palou said. “That’s the reason why I love this place.”
Defending champion Pato O’Ward was third, followed by McLaughlin, six-time series champion Scott Dixon and Christian Lundgaard. Dixon has six runners-up finishes at Barber but is still seeking his first win at the course.
Newgarden starts seventh, Power 11th and Ericsson 13th.
“I’m frustrated and annoyed, mostly at myself,” Newgarden said. “The car was really phenomenal. There was nothing wrong with our PPG car. It’s just disappointing to not transfer.”
No driver has come from outside the top 10 to win at Barber, though Power started ninth en route to his second straight Alabama victory in 2012. Five of the 12 winners started on the pole, and four others opened among the top three qualifiers.
There have been eight different polesitters in the past eight years at Barber. As usual, it could come down to different strategies of whether to take two pit stops or three.
“That’s the beauty of IndyCar,” Grosjean said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Power and VeeKay had a run-in when the latter attempted to pass on the out lap starting Round 2. Last year’s pole winner, VeeKay said he might have violated a gentleman’s agreement to not make such a move “but am I a gentleman?”
“No hard feelings, I guess, both ways,” VeeKay said. “I’m coming from the back. I’m the last one in line so I just want to get a good gap in the field. I did it last year and got a pole so why not pass everyone on the out lap?
“Will got a little heated, but that’s Will. That’s why he’s got a red car, right? It wasn’t meant to (tick) anyone off, but I had to do something to get my place on the track and I got that third lap out of there because of that.”
Power was seeking his fifth pole at Barber.
MARCUS IN MAY
Ericcson’s 2022 season took off in May with one strong finish followed by the pinnacle, an Indianapolis 500 win.
The Swedish driver is already off to a great start despite the struggles in qualifying, with the return to Indy looming. Ericsson, who got married on March 11, won the opener at St. Petersburg.
“Obviously winning the 500, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said Ericsson, who finished fourth at last year’s Grand Prix of Indy before winning the big one. “I was still a bit disappointed with the end of the season, how I sort of fell off a little bit in the championship fight. I worked very hard this winter to improve that and look at the areas where I needed to improve.”