Will Power on pole for Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (Sun., 2:30 pm ET, NBCSN)

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Verizon IndyCar Series championship leader Will Power will have the opportunity to continue his good start to 2014 from the pole position in tomorrow’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

The Team Penske driver’s time of 1:08.3120 in the Firestone Fast Six was enough to give him his first pole of the season. It bears noting that he won the first of his two Barber victories from the pole back in 2011.

“[Winning] is the only thing that counts for us, and a part of trying to win here is getting the pole,” he told the IMS Radio Network. “It definitely makes our job easier.

“…It’s going to be a tough race. When it goes green, these temperatures are going to be very physical. There will be a lot of traffic and a lot of marbles so we’ll do everything we can to get the win.”

Starting alongside him up front will be Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe, who secured his second consecutive front-row start thanks to his FF6 lap of 1:08.3409.

“This is a tough track to pass on and tires are going to be at a premium, so having a good starting spot is huge,” Hinchcliffe said.

Additionally, all four of the Andretti drivers will be starting within the Top 10 positions on the grid. Defending Barber champion Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified third, while rookie Carlos Munoz will go off seventh, and Marco Andretti shall begin from ninth.

However, an interesting subplot may be taking shape along Row 2 as Hunter-Reay will be joined there by Josef Newgarden, who qualified fourth.

Hunter-Reay and Newgarden’s contact two weeks ago during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach set off a major multi-car incident that also collected Hinchcliffe and several other drivers.

That said, Newgarden maintained that he’s moved on from the incident.

“When I looked at it, it was a sad opportunity that had happened,” he said in the post-qualifying presser. “Immediately, I wanted to go to the next one, like I think any racer would. I want to be up front again. You don’t just want one opportunity to finish well in a race.

“[It’s] no big deal. It’s racing. It happens. We’re here now and it’s turning the page for everybody.”

Scott Dixon, who has finished runner-up in each of the four IndyCar races at Barber, will be on the inside of Row 3 and flanked by Helio Castroneves, the series’ inaugural winner at this track back in 2010.

Among the key names that will have to start from the back after failing to advance out of the group stages are Justin Wilson (16th), Long Beach winner Mike Conway (21st), and Tony Kanaan (23rd and last in the field).

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES – HONDA INDY GRAND PRIX OF ALABAMA
Qualifying Results

1. 12-Will Power
2. 27-James Hinchcliffe
3. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. 67-Josef Newgarden
5. 9-Scott Dixon
6. 3-Helio Castroneves
ELIMINATED IN ROUND TWO
7. 34-Carlos Munoz (rookie)
8. 2-Juan Pablo Montoya
9. 25-Marco Andretti
10. 77-Simon Pagenaud
11. 7-Mikhail Aleshin (rookie)
12. 11-Sebastien Bourdais (penalized for interference; lost 2 fastest laps)
ELIMINATED IN ROUND ONE
13. 17-Sebastian Saavedra
14. 14-Takuma Sato
15. 18-Carlos Huertas (rookie)
16. 19-Justin Wilson
17. 83-Charlie Kimball
18. 15-Graham Rahal
19. 16-Oriol Servia
20. 8-Ryan Briscoe
21. 20-Mike Conway
22. 98-Jack Hawksworth (rookie)
23. 10-Tony Kanaan

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.