IndyCar: Hunter-Reay snatches pole from Dixon at Sonoma; Rossi qualifies sixth and O’Ward ends up fifth

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Scott Dixon appeared to have the pole, and the crucial championship point that comes along with it, locked up for Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Dixon had a quick time of 1:17.7599 and, with the checkered flag out, was on his way back to the pits. The other drivers in the Firestone Fast Six (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Patricio O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, and Marco Andretti) appeared to have nothing for him.

However, Hunter-Reay, the last man on track, was able to steal the pole away on his final lap with a time of 1:17.6277, over one tenth of a second clear of Dixon.

More critically, Hunter-Reay took the aforementioned point away from Dixon, meaning Dixon’s lead over Rossi remains at 29 points entering Sunday’s race.

“We’ve been in the Fast Six here quite a few times. It’s nice to get the pole,” Hunter-Reay quipped in the post-qualifying press conference.

Hunter-Reay also added that even though teammate Alexander Rossi is fighting for a championship, his own focus will not be on helping Rossi, but rather on taking the race win himself.

“Big focus on trying to win this thing tomorrow,” Hunter-Reay asserted. “We finished second and third here in the past. We would love to get that big bottle of red wine, whatever it is. I believe it’s red wine. That’s the ultimate goal for us right now. We’ll be concentrating on that.”

Dixon, meanwhile, admitted that he made a mistake on the track, in Turns 9 and 9a, that ultimately cost him the pole. However, his confidence level remains high ahead of Sunday’s race.

“Huge driver error there. Just needed to get through a right and left, and it would have been looking pretty decent,” Dixon revealed. “The car felt good. Huge credit to the team. They’ve done a good job. I think between Portland and here, we came with a pretty different car. It rolled off really well.”

Dixon will start second, while Newgarden qualified third. Andretti enjoyed one of his best qualifying efforts of the year to qualify fourth, and O’Ward continued to shine on his debut weekend – he’ll start fifth after making the Firestone Fast Six.

Rossi brought up the rear of the Fast Six group and will start sixth.

Alexander Rossi qualified sixth, but saved a set of Firestone alternate reds for Sunday’s Race. Photo: IndyCar

Qualifying, and the Fast Six in particular, was an intriguing display of tire strategy. Most notably, Rossi opted to stay on the Firestone primary blacks in the Fast Six, rather than use a set of the alternate reds.

He explained afterward that he and the No. 27 Napa Auto Parts Andretti Autosport team wanted to try something different, and it backfired.

“I think we made good steps forward from yesterday and this morning to be pretty competitive this afternoon. We tried something a little different in hopes it would pay off. We did the Firestone blacks for the Fast Six. But at the end of the day it clearly is probably not the right decision,” Rossi detailed.

Will Power, tied with Newgarden in the standings – both are still mathematically alive at 87 points back – just missed the Fast Six and will start seventh. His Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud qualified right behind him in eighth. Graham Rahal, Zach Veach, Sebastien Bourdais, and Takuma Sato also missed the Fast Six after advancing out of Round 1.

Other notables include Ed Jones (14th), James Hinchcliffe (15th), Tony Kanaan (16th), and Colton Herta (19th).

Results are below. Sunday’s race, the season finale for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, rolls off 6:30 p.m. ET.

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Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.