The variables of rain and a drying track during qualifying for Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto event shuffled the order in interesting ways as Josef Newgarden earned pole and the hometown favorites of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens missed out on making the Firestone Fast Six.
The Team Penske driver left nothing behind on an amazing final lap to snatch pole from Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. With five of the six drivers sitting on pit lane with the clock wound down to zero, the No. 1 Chevy driver pulled out an amazing performance (59.4956s) as the final car to complete a lap and knocked Dixon (+0.1964s) from atop the field.
“I thought I steered us in the wrong direction for a moment,” said the defending series champion. “We went out a little later — which, to me, I thought if we could keep the minimum amount of laps on the tires, the better. The risk is if it starts raining heavier in the session, you need to be out earlier setting a lap.
“Fortunately, it started drying up towards the end. The last two laps it got progressively better. I knew that last lap would be the one to mail it. The car’s been incredible this weekend. We got all three of us [Team Penske drivers] in the Fast Six, which is all you could ask for on a day like today.”
Newgarden also put Chevy up front for the first time this weekend after Honda-powered drivers, including Dixon, held comfortable margins over the Bowtie prior to qualifying. For his part, the CGR driver was frustrated by a mistake he felt cost him a chance at staying ahead of Newgarden.
“We were up a ton on the last lap and got a little too much in Turn 5 and nearly spun,” Dixon said. “That would have been plenty to get the pole, but it is what it is.”
Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (+0.2674s) and Will Power (+0.3862s) took third and fourth, and like Dixon, the reigning Indy 500 winner lost his best opportunity to take pole due to an error.
“Made a mistake on that one lap and got onto the wet cement and pushed out wide,” Power said. “No one makes mistakes these days, so qualifying means everything.”
With Chevy’s blitz to score three of the top four starting positions, the Andretti Autosport Honda duo of Alexander Rossi (+1.1317s) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (+1.1659s) were powerless to challenge for better starting spots. Fast in the opening round and solid in the second, Rossi was surprised by the gap to Dixon and the Penske trio.
“I’m at a loss how we’re a second off the front row,” he declared.
Despite leading the final practice session before qualifying, a roll of the dice on tire choice kept Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato from transferring into the Fast Six.
“It’s a shame, but obviously we tried,” he said after posting the seventh-best time. “We went to the reds first, then the blacks, which was a gamble. It’s pity, but that’s OK. I think tomorrow will be very interesting.”
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King was quick as usual in street course qualifying on the way to eighth, and in ninth and 10th, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Canadian combo was farther back than expected.
“The rain and these conditions kind of threw us for a loop,” Hinchcliffe said after spinning on his final flier, which left him in ninth. “It’s been a bit of a struggle this weekend.”
“Just trying to gather up what happened in that session; it was pretty chaotic,” Wickens added.
After Newgarden’s stellar charge, the best performance in qualifying went to Harding Racing’s Conor Daly in 11th. Driving the No. 88 Chevy on a few days’ notice after Gabby Chaves was parked, the former AJ Foyt Racing driver gave the rookie team its best starting position since the opening round at St. Petersburg.
Since Chaves qualified eighth at St. Pete, the team had failed to come close in the 10 races that followed, with Daly ahead of Foyt’s Matheus Leist in 12th and Tony Kanaan in 15th, the Hoosier’s efforts were hard to ignore.
“Well, today was great!” exulted Daly. “We had one lap to do it and we did it, so I was over-the-moon happy. I have to thank Chevy for dialing us in there and all the No. 88 Harding Racing guys because we made improvements every session. We went half a second quicker than we’ve gone in the dry in Q2, so coming out 11th as well is just awesome. It’s such a big boost for the weekend because qualifying has always been a struggle of mine for sure, but to come out and do it like that is nice.”
Looking through the rest of the field, a damp opening round of knockout qualifying left Kanaan, RLL’s Graham Rahal and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais on the outside looking in. A spin and stall by CGR’s Ed Jones brought out a red flag, and with time for one flying lap after the return to green, some of IndyCar’s bigger names were unable to follow Daly through to the Fast 12.
“The car didn’t feel too bad, but wasn’t too great, either,” said a frustrated Rahal, who starts 13th. “I didn’t have a great open to the lap. I thought we were going to be better when we crossed the line. It’s probably going to ruin our weekend. It’s a shame.”
“A tough weekend for us,” Bourdais said of his own struggles that left him 17th. “Usually really happy and competitive here, but it hasn’t been the case so far.”
Conditions improved enough between the first and second groups that Firestone’s stick alternate tires were used to post the fastest laps. ECR’s Spencer Pigot was the first to use the red-banded tires to jump to the top, but with more speed become available every lap as the track surface offered additional grip, the Iowa podium finisher was overtaken by other drivers who went to reds later and were rewarded for their patience.
Foyt’s Matheus Leist was pleased to scrape in as Andretti’s Marco Andretti and Zach Veach also fell out of their transfer spots late in the session.
“I think we just put the red tires on too soon,” Pigot confirmed after claiming 16th. “A little too eager on the dry tires and we wore them out too quick.”