Ryan Hunter-Reay used the final flying lap of Saturday’s IndyCar qualifying session to bump championship leader Scott Dixon out of pole position for tomorrow’s season finale.
Dixon had set up camp in P1 with time running out on the clock and just a couple of cars yet to complete their final flying lap, but Hunter-Reay managed to improve upon the New Zealander’s time by 0.1322s to secure the seventh pole of his career, and first since Long Beach in 2014. It was also Andretti Autosport’s first pole at Sonoma since Dario Franchitti rolled off from P1 in 2007.
“That was just a shootout to the last minute, trying to figure out which tires to go with,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s nice to finally get that pole at Sonoma, because we’ve been knocking at the door of it for years.”
He also acknowledged that significance of the pole from a championship standpoint, with Andretti teammate Alexander Rossi going into the race as the main threat to Dixon’s title hopes.
“I’m certainly doing my part,” he said. “I just took a point away from Dixon, so we’re doing everything we can do.”
Dixon was left to settle for a starting position on the outside of the front row, and rued a mistake on his fast lap.
“Huge driver error there, just needed to get through a right and a left and we would have been looking pretty decent,” he said. “Happy with the car, and obviously tomorrow is what counts. Maybe another driver in that car would have gotten it done…”
The silver lining from his standpoint is that Rossi will start from sixth after a gamble to remain on Firestone’s harder black tire for the Fast Six failed to pay dividends.
“I think we made good steps forward from yesterday to be pretty competitive this afternoon,” Rossi said.
“We tried something a little different in the hopes that it would pay off, but at the end of the day it clearly wasn’t the right decision. At this point we’re trying to hit some home runs and get it done, and it wasn’t meant to be. But we knew the furthest we could fall back was sixth. I’m disappointed, but I also don’t think we had the pace for pole.”
Of the other championship contenders, Josef Newgarden will line up third after what he described as an “OK” lap, while Penske teammate Will Power found himself in the unfamiliar situation of spending the Fast Six as a spectator after rolling the dice on using just one run to transfer from the second qualifying segment. He’ll start from seventh.
“Should have gone another lap,” he said. “Tried to save our tires for the Fast 6. It was a bad call – I was pushing for just one lap, but obviously it was a bad decision. It felt like we had a reasonable car in the long runs, and I think tomorrow is going to be a strategy game in terms of how quickly the tires drop off and whether you go for three or four stops. But it was a bad decision, and I was part of it. If we’d done another lap, I think we’d have gotten in.”
Power’s failure to make it out of the second qualifying phase was just one of several surprises during the afternoon. Marco Andretti’s first Fast Six appearance of the year yielded a P4 [his Detroit pole was earned through a different qualifying procedure], but sitting immediately behind him on the timing screen was Harding debutant Pato O’Ward. The 2018 Indy Lights champion only did one flying lap in the Fast Six and held third until the final moments.
“That’s pretty good, right?” he beamed. “We had a really good day yesterday and I am getting more and more comfortable with the car. Everything is slowing down now. I’m just happy to be in the Fast Six – I didn’t even care where I started, I just said ‘let’s go out and do a fast one and see what happens.’ Today was a very, very good day.”
Meanwhile, Simon Pagenaud’s attempt at a third straight Sonoma win will begin from eighth on the grid, leaving Graham Rahal and Zach Veach to round out the top 10.