The feel-good story on Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park was delivered by rookie Romain Grosjean who humbled some of the NTT IndyCar Series’ best on the way to qualifying seventh.
Directly behind the 34-year-old Frenchman were Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, a two-time series champion, and Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who also happened to be drivers who finished second and third in the 2020 standings.
Grosjean was two spots down to defending championship winner and Chip Ganassi Racing pilot Scott Dixon in fifth and CGR’s Marcus Ericsson in sixth, which spoke to where his No. 51 Honda landed on debut. It was a heady performance for the ex-Formula 1 driver who led the modest Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing organization to a surprise result; teammate Ed Jones was 13th in the No. 18 DCR with Vasser Sullivan Honda.
“What a day — seventh in qualifying, that’s clearly above expectations,” Grosjean beamed. “But being so close to the [Firestone] Fast Six, obviously, I was really hoping we would get in but it’s still really great.”
The sense of achievement for a driver whose life was threatened late last year in an unforgettable crash and fire was palpable. And while qualifying seventh won’t guarantee a great 90-lap race on Sunday, Grosjean delighted in unleashing raw speed after spending his final years in F1 mired with underwhelming machinery.
“The Dale Coyne Racing with RWR team really helped me to understand the qualifying tires,” he said. “We’ve done really good work with the setup and I think we know where to look to go faster, which is very positive. We’re going to enjoy this today but let’s focus on tomorrow. We have 90 laps of racing to do — I need to learn tire degradation, fuel saving, refueling, pit stops, how an IndyCar race goes. So, still a lot to learn tomorrow but I’m really happy with today.”