Graham Rahal earned two poles in an INDYCAR SERIES season for the first time in 14 years, and he gave the rest of the field something to think about entering the BITNILE.COM Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday.
Rahal turned a top lap of 58.3195 seconds in the No. 15 PeopleReady Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to add an NTT P1 Award to the one he won last month for the Gallagher Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. And unlike the other five drivers in the Firestone Fast Six, Rahal turned his best lap on Firestone primary tires, which are supposed to be slower but more durable than the Firestone alternate red-sidewall tires.
“Yesterday, we really struggled on the red tires,” Rahal said. “This morning we saved a set of blacks (primary tires) compared to everyone else, and it just worked out to be able to go to the new blacks (in qualifying). Everybody has pushed real hard to get our team back to this point, and it’s nice to have two poles here at the end of the year.”
This was the fifth career pole of Rahal’s INDYCAR SERIES career. His first two came in 2009, on the streets of St. Petersburg and at Kansas Speedway. Rahal was 18th of 27 drivers in practice Friday and improved to fourth in practice Saturday morning, avoiding running on a set of primary tires that ended up being his secret weapon in the Firestone Fast Six.
Reigning race winner Scott McLaughlin qualified second at 58.3525 in the No. 3 Freightliner Team Penske Chevrolet. He won this race from the pole last year, leading 104 of 110 laps.
“We have a great car,” McLaughlin said. “It was the same car we ran last year, so hopefully we’ll be OK.”
Live coverage of this year’s 110-lap race starts at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Colton Herta qualified third at 58.4576 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian. Rahal’s speed on primary tires led Herta to mull over strategy for the race Sunday on the 12-turn, 1.964-mile road course. Each team has six sets of Firestone primary tires and four sets of alternate tires for use during an event weekend, and all drivers must run the primary and alternate tires during the race.
“That’s one set that he’s taken off the table for the race tomorrow, too,” Herta said of Rahal’s decision to use primary tires in the Firestone Fast Six. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and you have to be willing to give up a little bit, strategy-wise, to get that pole.
“We thought the reds were going to be better. I think for us, (the alternate tire) probably was the best. Our Gainbridge car has come a long way this weekend.”
Scott Dixon qualified fourth at 58.5803 in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda as he tries to keep alive his faint hopes for a record-tying seventh championship. Dixon trails teammate Alex Palou by 74 points entering this race and must trim that gap to 53 points or less after the race tomorrow to carry the title race to the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 10 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
But Palou kept the pressure on his legendary teammate by qualifying fifth at 58.6492 in the No. 10 The American Legion Honda. And in bad news for Dixon and the other 25 drivers in the field, Palou was the only driver to end up in the top five in each of the first three on-track sessions this weekend.
Pato O’Ward rounded out the Firestone Fast Six at 58.6737 in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet.
The last two Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winners, Josef Newgarden and Marcus Ericsson, and reigning series champion Will Power were eliminated in the second round of qualifying.
2023 Indy 500 winner Newgarden’s chances to advance to the Firestone Fast Six ended early in the Round of 12 when the left tires of his No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet ran over the rumble strips and into the dirt exiting Turn 11, sending his car nose first into the tire barrier in Turn 12. Newgarden was unhurt, but his car suffered moderate damage. He will start 12th.
Ericsson will start 10th in the No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing. Power dipped a wheel into the dirt on his final flying lap of the Round of 12 in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, and he will start seventh.
The unpredictable, ultra-competitive nature of qualifying in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES was magnified in the first round when the respective two quickest drivers from Friday’s practice, Christian Lundgaard and Kyle Kirkwood, failed to advance to the second round.
Lundgaard was slowed by traffic at the end of the first round of qualifying and will start 17th in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The setup that Kirkwood used to end up second Friday didn’t translate to qualifying conditions and Firestone alternate tires, and he will start 16th in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda of Andretti Autosport.