Ryan Hunter-Reay needed this.
After a three-car wreck ended his day in last week’s Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana, and then he got a points penalty earlier this week, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion’s season got a bit of spark when he advanced to his first Firestone Fast Six of 2015 and qualified fourth for Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
A lap time of 1:07.0473 put the Andretti Autosport driver on the second row with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon.
Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda was the only Honda to make it into the Fast Six, with Graham Rahal the next highest in eighth.
“(Qualifying) was pressure-packed,” Hunter-Reay told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee. “We definitely put the goal out today to make the Firestone Fast Six – that, for us, was a pole today. We got in there and we got well within (the top six), so we’re pretty happy about that.”
Hunter-Reay now sits 14th in points, and trails Juan Pablo Montoya by 50. Realistically, Hunter-Reay could break into the top six with a good result Sunday as he trails Simona de Silvestro – who is sixth in points – by just 10 points. De Silvestro was RHR’s teammate the opening two races, but she is not racing at Long Beach this year.
Sunday will be Hunter-Reay’s first top-five start of 2015 and his first since Mid-Ohio last year, which was also the last of three straight.
“This is another step forward with this new Honda (aero) package, and I think it’s obvious you can see it,” Hunter-Reay said.
Hunter-Reay won at Long Beach in 2010, but his best finish since was sixth in 2012 in the midst of finishes of 23rd (2011), 24th (2013) and 20th (2014). That sixth place came after a post-race demotion from a potential podium result for contacting Takuma Sato.
His Andretti teammates, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz, both made it to the second round of 12 cars. Andretti will start 10th, and Munoz will roll off 12th.