BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Three drivers from single-car teams enjoyed their best qualifying runs of the season and first Firestone Fast 6 appearances in some time Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park.
Josef Newgarden (No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet), Sebastien Bourdais (No. 11 Europa Chevrolet) and Graham Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda) will line up from third, fifth and sixth, respectively.
Their best starts this year were sixth (Rahal) and seventh (Newgarden and Bourdais). Rahal equaled his best, although he qualified seventh at St. Petersburg and moved up one after Will Power was unable to start.
Newgarden, the defending race winner after starting fifth and leading 46 of 90 laps, and in his final race in the special Fuzzy’s Vodka commemorative livery, exceeded his own expectations.
“I didn’t think we were going to be that high up,” he admitted. “I have a lot of confidence in what we’re doing, it was just kind of hard to put everything together this weekend. We were just floating inside that top 10, and I never felt like we could get up to the top three, top five as easily as we wanted to.
“We made a really good change going into qualifying. I think it’s something we were probably missing, so luckily we hit it at the right point, and that really helped us in qualifying to get where we were.”
Bourdais has been on it all weekend with KVSH and was unlucky to only end fifth; he set the track record in Q2 at 1:06.6001.
He was also on it last week at Long Beach, gaining five positions during the race from 14th to ninth.
“It’s always screwed up when it goes like that, right?” he said. “You set the track record and then you get disappointed when you finish fifth. You know, it’s a shame. The guys did a great job. We unloaded off the truck real strong, and that HYDROXYCUT machine was really dialed in.
“Just couldn’t quite make it happen on the rerun on the tires, just picked up a bit too much understeer and just couldn’t get back on power on these long, long, long turns. Only the juice of the new tires could have allowed me to put it together, and it was a really clean lap, and it’s so funny when the car is like that, everything seems easy, and it was one of the very enjoyable moments of the week for sure.”
Rahal, who finished second to Newgarden last year, upheld Honda’s honor in sixth.
“The car was good on reds,” he said. “We snuck through that first group, and then didn’t quite hit it on the first round, didn’t get the reds to match their capability, and then finally second round we did. That was about as good of a lap I think as — there was definitely nowhere else for me to find time. So I knew in round three we were going to have to put some magic together to be up front.
“These guys are all great competitors up front. We’re top Honda. Obviously we’d like to be the top of everything, but we’re going to keep working hard and try to harass these boys tomorrow in the race.”
Of course with Newgarden and Rahal having ended 1-2 ahead of Scott Dixon last year, there’s evidence that the smaller teams can take it to the Penskes and Ganassis of the world at this track.
It will be fascinating to see if any or all these three can do it again this weekend.