BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The tide continues to turn in the IndyCar Series, where some new faces showed their speed in Saturday's qualifying session at Barber Motorsports Park.
Although it was defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay who ultimately won the pole, rookie Tristan Vautier qualified third after advancing into the Fast Six final round for the second consecutive race. Vautier only advanced because Takuma Sato was disqualified right before the Fast Six began, and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team had to hustle to get the Frenchman out on the track.
"I was upset and looking at the time board, right before the Fast Six started, I was looking at it, `Guys, I see my car in the top six, maybe we should bring it back to pit lane,' " Vautier said. "I have to give it to the guys. They brought the car back last minute and got it ready after the Fast Six started.
"It was a mix of emotions to be disappointed and then all of a sudden know I was in the Fast Six. I had to get back in it."
Once back in the car, he reeled off a lap good enough to line up behind Hunter-Reay and Will Power at the start on Sunday. But he's not getting too comfortable at the front of the field just yet.
"I'm not getting used to it because every time you get back in the car it starts from zero again," Vautier said. "It's kind of this way, this sport. Every time you get back on track, you have to do it again from zero. I don't want to get used to it. It's very challenging each time. So I really want to take it back from zero all the time and work as hard every weekend to stay here."
New to the Fast Six this week was Charlie Kimball, who advanced for the first time in his career on a day Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti, the four-time series champion, didn't even make it out of the first round of qualifying.
Kimball will start fifth on Sunday and praised his crew for its offseason preparation.
"I think we went away over the winter and sort of evaluated where we needed to make progress," Kimball said. "The whole Novo Nordisk team is focused on that as a group, being able to learn from Scott and Dario from all of last year's data and have the time on the winter to apply it. It's really a credit to the engineering and mechanic crew on the 83 car. They've given me the information and I've been able to go out and conform."
In other developments Saturday, Sebastian Saavedra made it out of the first group while Dragon Racing teammate Sebastien Bourdais failed to advance. It's the second race in which Saavedra outqualified his veteran teammate.
Same for Vautier, who outqualified teammate Simon Pagenaud again. It was Pagenaud a year ago who impressed as a rookie by opening the season with several strong qualifying runs.
And at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, James Jakes made it into the second round of qualifying while Graham Rahal did not. In fairness, Rahal was in the much harder first group, while Jakes made it through from the second group.
"In our qualifying group, Dixon blocked me on our fast lap. Was it going to be that much better? No, probably only a tenth or two and we wouldn't have advanced based on lap times," Rahal said. "It looks like we got the harder group because we would have been around third with our lap time in the second group and advanced. Unfortunately our group was stacked."