LEEDS, Ala. – Qualifications for the Verizon IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of Alabama and the Firestone Fast Six included all of the usual suspects at Barber Motorsports Park, such as three-time pole winner and two-time race winner Will Power, defending race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, three-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon as well as perennial contender Helio Castroneves.
The Fast Six also included rising talent Josef Newgarden, who was leading the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach two weeks ago before he was involved in a crash with the overanxious Hunter-Reay in turn four late in the race. Newgarden is the one driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series who is the closest to Barber Motorsports Park – hailing from right up Interstate 65 in Hendersonville, Tenn.
Power won the pole with a fast lap of 1:08.312 (121.209 miles per hour) around the 17-turn, 2.38-mile Barber Motorsports Park in a Dallara/Chevrolet. It was the Verizon IndyCar Series points leader’s first pole of 2014 and his third pole in five starts at Barber Motorsports Park. It was also the 33rd pole of his IndyCar career and that breaks a time with Michael Andretti for eighth all-time.
James Hinchcliffe was second quick and starts on the front row after a lap of 1:08.340 (121.157 mph) in a Dallara/Honda for Andretti Autosport. Teammate Hunter-Reay was third at 1:08.426 (121.006 mph) in another Dallara/Honda as the “Big Teams” of IndyCar swept the top three positions.
Then came Newgarden, a young driver competing for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s single-car effort. He was fourth quick at 1:08.470 (120.929 mph) in a Dallara/Honda. That was faster than three-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon’s lap at 1:08.5151 (120.849 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and the final driver in the Fast Six, Castroneves’ lap at 1:08.6258 (120.654 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Team Penske.
Newgarden has yet to win an IndyCar Series race but the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights Series champion is getting closer to victory lane and become a legitimate contender for race victories in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“It’s great to see Josef, a hell of a driver, good to see him on top form,” Dixon said. “Unfortunately he got taken out in Long Beach. But good to see him in the top six where I think he should be a lot of time.”
Newgarden is just the type of driver the Verizon IndyCar Series needs – a young, attractive, personable driver from the United States with personality. The one thing keeping him from becoming a star is a victory and he certainly has shown the talent to run up front.
Drivers such as Dixon already recognize that.
“That’s really nice of Scott if he said that,” Newgarden said. “I’d like to be up top here a little more often. That would be great. You think you got to work your way up there, for sure. You got to earn your own respect in any league or series you enter into.
“It’s still early days I think for me. It’s tough in this sport. You can be in and out very quickly. A lot of guys didn’t get a chance to be up here when they probably deserve to be. You can’t take that for granted. The only thing you can really do is work as hard as you can, try to maximize everything you can as a driver, hope that it comes together one day.
“I think that’s happened a little bit more for me this year. I have things clicking a little bit better for me. The team has helped me a lot. Not a lot of teams give a driver three years to get good at what they do. It’s so critical now in this series, you really have to understand what you’re doing. If you don’t understand what you’re doing, you can’t be good.
“It doesn’t matter how good the team is. If you don’t understand what you’re doing because it’s so critical that the driver helps the team elevate the car each and every weekend. Even here, I bet everyone feels the same way, but this track has changed continuously over this weekend. It’s been very hard to understand what to do with the car each session. You don’t want to get too ahead of yourself or get behind.
“It’s just working hard. I hope to be up here more often. I’m enjoying today for sure. It’s great to be up here.”
It’s undeniable that Newgarden is improving and getting the most out of what he has with one of the smaller teams in the series owned by former IndyCar and USAC driver Sarah Fisher and businessman Wink Hartman.