BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Tony Kanaan felt snubbed after the IndyCar drivers barely got on-track cameos during warmups. Will Power was steamed because IndyCar red-flagged his fast qualifying time, leaving the defending champion back in the pack to start the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
Helio Castroneves, meanwhile, had no complaints since he'll start Sunday's IndyCar race on the pole in pursuit of his second straight win to open the season after completing the 2.38-mile road course at Barber Motorsports Park in 1:10.4768 during qualifying. It's his 37th career pole.
The build-up to Chevrolet vs. Honda Round 2 boasted plenty of drama, especially for a race that had only one leader – Power – from start to finish last year. Fellow Chevrolet driver James Hinchcliffe (1:10.5222) qualified a career-best second and also starts on the front row, followed by Honda's Scott Dixon (1:10.5291) and Mike Conway (1:10.8791)
The biggest qualifying upset Saturday was that Power didn't make it to the Fast Six for the first time in 21 races. That was because of bad timing, not slow times. His final second-session lap would have led the way but it didn't count because a local yellow flag had come down after Ryan Hunter-Reay's wreck and a red flag followed.
"It's a pretty frustrating qualifying result," said Power, who had started the first two Barber races on the pole. "Man, we had a great Verizon car today. We had a good first session and we were ready to fight for the pole. I know IndyCar threw the red flag there but I'm not sure why they didn't allow our fast lap. It's definitely going to be tough starting ninth (Sunday), but we know we've got a fast car. We have to have a good start and be strong on the restarts and hopefully work our way up front."
IndyCar's new race director said it was a no-brainer because Power had driven through the caution area and the red flag was dropped just before he finished.
"It was a great lap, it's an unfortunate situation," Beaux Barfield said. "But in my eyes from an officiating standpoint, that lap was never going to stand anyway. I did delay the call of the red flag – there was one other car on a legitimate lap that hadn't driven through the situation – to make sure he could finish the lap. I know it looked like we dropped it right when Will Power was getting near there, but the lap had already basically been disallowed in our eyes anyway, based on the fact that he drove through the local caution."
Power's 1:09.8529 in the first qualifying round had broken his own track record.
Drivers were grumbling at another call before qualifying even began.
They were limited to one warmup lap because fog had grounded a medical helicopter, potentially pushing back the schedule and dipping into Indy Lights cars' time on the track.
That pecking order left Kanaan grumbling that he felt as if he were back "racing in Formula Fords."
"I think a better way to handle it would be – treat us like the top series," said Kanaan, who starts sixth alongside JR Hildebrand. "We should run before anybody else does, no matter what. If we're going to delay some people, we're going to delay some people. We're not going to get us jeopardized.
"I'm saying that without really knowing what's going on during those schedules. It's a selfish way to say we want to run."
Barfield said the helicopter took off for the track right after the drivers packed it in, and noted that Indy Lights drivers had lost track time earlier because of the weather. A Grand-Am race was scheduled for early afternoon.
"We had a very narrow window this morning to operate within to do all of our business," he said. "We had zero flexibility to sort of slide into that window."
In the manufacturers' competition, Honda managed to close the gap with two cars among the top four after Chevrolet monopolized the top 5 in St. Petersburg qualifying.
Team Penske had a mixed day, with Castroneves winning the pole and Power and Ryan Briscoe (12th) landing disappointing starting spots. Briscoe had mechanical problems that kept him from running in the second round of qualifying.
Power led from start to finish last year. He's been the dominant driver in practice and qualifying rounds all three years, but a backfiring pit strategy in 2010 cost him the lead and maybe the points title. Team Penske is 2-for-2 at the picturesque track in suburban Birmingham.
Three-time defending points champion Dario Franchitti's rough start continued in qualifying. He didn't make it past the first round of qualifying. His fast lap of 1:10.6749 has him starting 18th after a 13th-place finish at St. Petersburg.
"Lack of balance overall really is what we dealt with," Franchitti said. "Lack of track time, too, and we haven't been great so far."
Ex-Formula One star Rubens Barrichello qualified 14th in his second IndyCar race.
Hinchcliffe, the 2011 rookie of the year, topped his third-place start in Kentucky last year. He opened in the eighth position at Barber last year but got caught up in E.J. Viso's spinout less than halfway through.
"Not a bad Saturday morning at the track," he said. "For us, it was obviously a decent session. We rolled into qualifying after the weird schedule with the weather we have had with only, I think, 14 or 15 dry laps under our belt, and those didn't even go that well. We didn't know quite what to expect.
"With a couple of big hitters missing out because of that yellow, we knew it was going to be a good opportunity to try to score well, and as a result we end up on the front row."
That could be awfully important on a narrow course where passing opportunities are at a premium. Power said Friday it might be hard to win without some help for anyone starting outside the front two rows.
"I reckon anywhere almost out of the top four you don't have a chance to win it," he said.
Scott Dixon, who has finished second here the past two years, knows the difficulties of squeezing past other cars.
"It's always tough to pass here," Dixon said. "It's always hard to get a run. I think strategy is going to be key."