BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An intense qualifying session at Barber Motorsports Park showed how strong the IndyCar competition is this season, the series isn't immune from controversy and race control won't hesitate to make a bold call.
One other thing made clear Saturday? Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay can still get the best of Will Power.
Hunter-Reay ended Penske Racing's ownership of the pole position at Barber by beating Power with a late final lap to claim the top starting spot for Saturday's race. The Andretti Autosport driver became the first driver not from Penske Racing to win the pole at the picturesque permanent road course, where Power and Helio Castroneves have won every pole and every race since IndyCar's 2010 debut.
"The team has done a great job in the offseason of moving forward, especially at this racetrack," said Hunter-Reay, who had never started higher than 11th in three previous visits to Barber. "It's a matter of mechanical grip for us. We've definitely closed the gap there. It's really nice to see that we've made progress in the offseason. That's definitely encouraging."
Hunter-Reay's pole, the third of his career, capped a qualifying session that was intense from the very beginning.
The first group was stacked, and driver after cycled in and out of one of the top six positions needed to advance into the next round. AJ Allmendinger, who will make his IndyCar debut Sunday, made it through but Dario Franchitti, the four-time series champion, was among the several big names sent back to the paddock.
The next group didn't wage as spirited a battle, but tempers flared when James Hinchcliffe accused Power of blocking him and ruining his qualifying lap. Hinchcliffe failed to advance, and that's what Power said was really eating at the winner of the season-opening race at St. Pete.
"I don't think I blocked him, actually," said Power, who claimed Hinchcliffe teammate E.J. Viso slowed in front of Power to start an accordion effect.
"Don't know what he's talking about. Blocking? Have to take a look at the video, (he's) just whining because he didn't get through."
Hinchcliffe said the track data proved Power slowed more than four seconds "in a matter of six corners.
"Not saying he did it intentionally, but he undeniably did it," Hinchcliffe said.
A similar incident in the second segment between Takuma Sato and Justin Wilson left Wilson fuming as IndyCar officials turned to the tape to review Sato's action.
An amendment to the 2013 rule book gave IndyCar the power to disqualify a driver from the Firestone Fast Six final round of qualifying for interference in an effort to "further emphasize on track sportsmanship."
So when Wilson complained to IndyCar officials that Sato interfered with his lap, IndyCar took a look and disqualified him from advancing to the Fast Six.
"I'm really upset by what happened – we definitely had a top three car, possibly even a pole winning one," Wilson said. "I was working on a very quick lap when Sato slowed down in front of me and didn't get out of the way. That caused me to slow down and have to go around him.
"They took Sato's two fastest laps away, which was some sort of justice."
Sato paid his own visit to race control to argue he simply didn't see Wilson when he was forced to slow down because of James Jakes in front of him.
"I had to back off because there was a slower car in front of me at the exit of turn five, so I abandoned my qualifying lap and I tried to stretch the space," Sato said. "I checked my mirror on the back straight and there was no one there and then going through turns seven and eight, which is where the elevation changes which is probably the worst place for Justin Wilson to catch me, because I couldn't see anything behind me.
"When I was able to see that he was coming on I tried to keep my line tight and let him have the racing line. Obviously it was close, but I was disappointed to be penalized."
The ruling dropped Sato to last in the second round of qualifying, so he'll start 12th on Sunday. It allowed rookie Tristan Vautier to jump back into his car and compete in the Fast Six for the second consecutive race, and he wound up third.
The ruling by IndyCar also surprised at least one veteran for its aggressiveness.
"I didn't know race control had it in them," Scott Dixon said.
Dixon qualified fourth and was followed by Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Charlie Kimball, who made the Fast Six for the first time in his career. It put two of the Ganassi cars up front while Franchitti wound up 17th in the session. But, it was a marked improvement for Honda, who put three cars in the top six one race after Ganassi openly questioned the engine manufacturer's commitment to winning.
Chevrolet dominated the season-opening race and swept the St. Pete podium. Dixon was the highest finishing Honda driver at St. Pete in fifth, and said there's still work to be done both inside the Ganassi organization and with the engines.
"I think we're all trying to do the best, we're trying to win races," Dixon said. "The first race of the season was definitely a tough start. We still came away with some valuable points.
Do I think we are where we should be? No, I think we have some inroads to make in a lot of different areas. There's always room for improvement, I think there's quite a bit of room for us at the moment."
Castroneves was sixth, his lowest starting position after winning the pole last year and qualifying inside the top four in the first two visits to Barber.
Allmendinger, meanwhile, will start 10th in his IndyCar debut. He was actually 11th overall in qualifying, but moved up a spot after Sato's disqualification.
More encouraging for Allmendinger was that his time in the second segment of 1:07.6962 showed he's up to speed – teammate Castroneves claimed the sixth and final spot at 1:07.2794.
"Making it into the top six was a pretty lofty goal," Allmendinger said. "It's still good to be inside the top 12. I know the Team Penske car will be good in the race, it's just a matter of me going with the flow and how I react to everything."