The belief over the last several years of American open wheel racing that Team Penske’s Will Power is the undisputed star of road and street course action in the Verizon IndyCar Series, is perhaps now being challenged Or to be more exact a 1-A ranking of close equalization could be added. The supposed challenger to Power’s multi-year reign appears for now to be his second year teammate Simon Pagenaud, who enters Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park as the 2016 championship leader. On Saturday, the Frenchmen made a further claim to possibly joining that conversation by edging his Australian teammate by earning the Verizon P1 Award, his first of the season.
Pagenaud, who won last week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach amid controversy for cutting across the pit exit blend line on his final stop, posted a lap of one minute, 6.7262 on the 2.38 mile Barber layout in the Firestone Fast Six Saturday, good enough to edge Power by just two tenths of a second. The front of the field has become a commonplace for Pagenaud so far in 2016, as he enters Sunday’s race having finished no worse than second in any of the first three races. Only Bobby Rahal in 1991 started a season with a similar result line (seconds in the first three races).
While Power and Pagenaud dominated the action in the Firestone Fast Six session on Saturday, Chevrolet appears to have regained their stronghold shown in the opening three rounds of the championship. In addition to the front row Penske sweep, three others Chevrolet-powered machines made the final session, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal the only Honda representative.
The second row of the grid features Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden, who earned his best starting grid position to date in 2016, with Phoenix Grand Prix race winner Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing starting alongside. The final two phase three members Sebastien Bourdais of KVSH Racing and Rahal complete row three.
The eventual starting grid composition on Saturday was in stark contrast to the two practice sessions on Friday in Birmingham, Alabama, where Honda-engined cars went 1-2-3 with AJ Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth both among them. However, the ABC Supply-sponsored Hondas could not backup the pace in qualifying, falling out of the qualifying shuffle in the first round. As a result, Hawksworth will lineup 14th with teammate Sato right behind them in 16th. In addition to Super Tex’s sudden drop, Andretti Autosport is also struggling this weekend in Alabama, as all four of their entries also dropped out of the running for the Verizon P1 Award in phase one. Of course, not all the issues were limited to Honda Performance Development however. Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya, who opened the season with a victory on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida struggled with multiple issues in session one and also was unable to proceed to phase two. He will start 20th on Sunday.
The Verizon P1 Award is the fourth in four 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series races for Team Penske, as Will Power prior to withdrawing from St. Petersburg due to health issues won the season’s first pole position, with Helio Castroneves claiming the other two poles at Phoenix and Long Beach.
Green flag for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is set for Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. eastern time, over the course of 90 laps.