By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – What a day it’s been for Rinus VeeKay.
After putting up the fast time in Saturday morning practice at Barber Motorsports Park, the driver of the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Honda kept the momentum rolling in qualifying, streaking around the 17-turn, 2.3-mile road course in one minute, 6.250 seconds to score the pole for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
“It was a great run,” VeeKay said. “Feel great out there. Actually a little bit surprised. My goal was to get to the Fast Six. This is my first-ever pole with Fast Six, full qualifying sequence.
“Yeah, actually when I got in the Fast Six, all the pressure just got away. I just enjoyed and did the best I could do out there. Yeah, that was P1.”
Pato O’Ward was the fastest driver in the second round, along with being the fastest early on in the final round of qualifying, but had to watch helplessly on pit road as VeeKay was motoring around the track to steal the pole away in the waning minutes.
Nonetheless, O’Ward was happy with his qualifying run and front row starting position, especially given how difficult the treacherous road course can be to pass on and the unknowns Sunday’s weather forecast brings.
“This is the first decent qualifying we’ve had this year, which makes us all feel really good, motivated for tomorrow,” O’Ward said. “I think tomorrow the weather is going to be an interesting factor into playing what the strategy is going to be like. I think it also might play into shuffling things around.
“It’s a tough circuit. If it gets a little bit wet or I guess if it starts drying, but the grass gets a little bit wet, there’s going to be a lot of shuffling with everybody just trying to make passes, grabbing a bit of that grass, probably spinning. It will probably get a little bit more chaotic than if it just stays dry.
“I think we’re in a good starting position to do some good stuff tomorrow. We can work from there.”
Alex Palou qualified third fastest, followed by Scott McLaughlin, and Alexander Rossi rebounding from his practice crash to round out the top-five.
“It was unbelievable,” Rossi said of the team effort to get him back on track for qualifying. “Yeah, I think it was six of the guys involved, management involved. It was a big, big situation to do an engine and a gearbox. So, yeah, I put them in a very tough situation.
“It was amazing just to be out there in the first place, have the opportunity to compete and qualify. Obviously we knew that the car had been strong all weekend. We didn’t get a chance on the red tires, so the first run was kind of guessing a little bit.
“I was just pleased to be out there. I mean, obviously when you advance all the way to the end, you hope for a little bit more. Ultimately where we were two hours ago, I think everyone is relieved and happy that we got through that. Every result that we get this weekend is down to those guys, for sure.”
Felix Rosenqvist was the last of the drivers to transfer to the final round of qualifying and will roll off from sixth place on Sunday. The remainder of the top-10 starters will be made up of Josef Newgarden, Romain Grosjean, Graham Rahal, and Colton Herta.
The first group of qualifying went incident free, with McLaughlin, O’Ward, Rosenqvist, Palou, Rossi and Rahal advancing on to the second round.
The second group of round one qualifiers saw two incidents late in the session, when Helio Castroneves spun, but was able to keep going, along with David Malukas, who made an off-track excursion of his own in Turn 15-16, making front end contact with the Armco barrier.
Among the drivers advancing from that group to the top-12 was Grosjean, Herta, Newgarden, VeeKay, Callum Ilott, and Marcus Ericsson.
Things got interesting in the second round, when Herta and his Andretti Autosport team were playing the waiting game to try and time their lap to the very end of the session, but got bitten by a late round spin by Marcus Ericsson.
Herta was on a flyer when Ericsson went off track and brought out the red flag, stranding him outside the top-six and keeping him from advancing into the Fast Six. The Andretti Autosport driver would have to instead settle for a 10th place qualifying result.
“We just waited too long and unfortunately, Ericsson just chucked it off and ruined it for us,” Herta said. “10th isn’t terrible. We can move forward from there. Who knows what the weather is going to bring tomorrow, so we’ll see.”
Just one final practice session awaits the drivers and teams on Saturday before all focus turns to Sunday’s race. The 30-minute final practice session is scheduled for 5:20 pm ET.