Joe Jennings, IndyCar correspondent
Helio Castroves blazed to the pole position for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, smoothly navigating his AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet through the 17 turns at Barber Motorsports Park at a speed of 117.485 miles per hour.
Adverse weather impacted the IZOD IndyCar Series track time on Friday and Saturday. Rain shortened practice time on Friday and fog forced cancellation of Saturday morning’s pre-qualification practice.
Pole winner Castroneves only turned 18 practice laps, and the others in the field had approximately the same number, much to their chagrin.
It is important to start the season strong, and we just have to keep doing what we are doing.
For the popular Brazilian, he earned his 37th career IZOD IndyCar Series pole position and did so for the first time at the Barber road course. He has now won at least one pole in 11 of the 12 seasons in which he has competed in the IndyCar Series.
Team Penske has now won the pole at Barber for three consecutive years with Will Power scoring twice. The vaunted team has captured the pole 22 times out of last 36 races and overall it has 205 poles in open-wheel racing.
For Castroneves, winning the season opener at St. Petersburg combined with today’s accomplishment gives further momentum to his team’s forward progress in 2012.
Commenting on his advancement through the three-phase qualification process, Castroneves said, “The first group was tough and our red tires were very sticky. After making adjustments, the car was much better in the second group, and I felt we were going to be strong going into the third session. Today was just perfect for us.”
He went on to say, “It is important to start the season strong, and we just have to keep doing what we are doing. Lots of things can happen in a race and you just have to continue doing what you can.”
While Castroneves exemplified success for his team, teammates Power and Ryan Briscoe fared poorly due to adhering to a qualification strategy that backfired on them. They intentionally waited too long before taking to the track in the second session and when they did, a red flag came out for a crash by Ryan Hunter-Reay, nixing their attempt to make a timed run.
Said Castroneves about his approach, “My strategy turned out to be the right one and tomorrow it may well come down to the one with the best strategy. Our three cars are very similar, and I guarantee they will all be strong.”
Power, the 2011 race winner, will start ninth in Sunday’s main event and Briscoe will be in 12th.
Even though James Hinchcliffe qualified second for the first time in his career, the Canadian was frustrated that he missed the pole by a mere 4/100ths of a second. “It is frustrating not to get the pole in the best drive of my career. I should be pleased with second, but the gap was so small,” he said. His speed was 117.410 mph.
Changing to a more positive outlook, he added, “It is obviously a great start for us to be on the outside of the front row, and it is a great result after the way practice went yesterday and being rained out, then being fogged out this morning. We only had 14 dry laps coming into qualifying. We knew we had to take a little bit of a swing at it, and give it to the Andretti guys because that green Go Daddy guy was quick.”
Driving the Team GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, Hinchcliffe is off to a strong start for his new team -- Andretti Autosport.
Scott Dixon, who has finished second on two occasions, qualified the Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda third quick at 117.398 mph.
Mike Conway put a smile on the face of A. J. Foyt with a solid fourth-fastest qualification effort of 116.819 mph to give the team its first Fast Six in five years. “We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” he said.
J. R. Hildebrand timed fifth fastest in the National Guard Panther Racing Chevrolet and popular Tony Kanaan took the sixth spot in the GEICO/Mouser Electronics KVRT Chevrolet.
Rounding out the top-10 qualifiers were E. J. Viso, Graham Rahal, Power and Simon Pagenaud.
In addition to hard-luck drivers Power, Briscoe and Hunter-Reay, Dario Franchitti missed the Fast Six for the second week in a row, ending up far back in 18th.
Said Franchitti about his situation, “Lack of balance overall really is what we dealt with. Lack of track time, too, and we haven’t been great so far.”
Power commented, “It’s a pretty frustrating qualifying result. We had a great car today. We were ready to right for the pole, and I know IndyCar threw the red flag but I’m not sure why they didn’t allow our fast lap.” His lap in the first qualifying session eclipsed the qualifying record he set in 2010.
Twenty-six cars qualified for Sunday’s 90-lap race around the 2.38-mile road course.
The NBC Sports Network will broadcast the race live at 2 p.m. ET.