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Surprising Qualifying Session Jumbles Starting Field for INDYCAR Grand Prix

If scanning Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix starting lineup for many of the NTT IndyCar Series’ usual suspects of established contenders, look down the list.

Qualifying provided continual surprises Friday, starting with the series’ top two drivers in the points failing to advance beyond the opening round. Points leader Josef Newgarden’s No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet will start 13th. Points runner-up Alexander Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Andretti Autosport Honda will roll off in 17th.

“I am not sure where we are missing it,” Newgarden said. “Unfortunately, we just aren’t that close.”

Rossi said his team tried an entirely different setup for qualifying, and it didn’t work.

“We were just missing overall grip and pace all day,” he said. “I don’t know that we can pinpoint it to one thing.”

By the time Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Felix Rosenqvist put his No. 10 NTT DATA Honda on the pole for the first time in his brief series career, others were shaking their heads about where they will begin Saturday’s 85-lap race (3:30 p.m., NBC).

Will Power, who was won this race three times from the pole including the last two years, qualified sixth in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet.

“We’re just a little bit lost, unfortunately,” Power said. “We can’t really put a finger on where we’re slow. We know we’re slow actually on the straights. That’s one area. We’re not sure why.”

The only other driver to win this race is Simon Pagenaud, who triumphed in the inaugural event in 2014 for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports and again in 2016 for Team Penske. This time, his No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet will follow Power on the outside in the eighth position.

Ryan Hunter-Reay was queasy before he got into his No. 28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda because of food poisoning, then the run probably made him even more sick. He veered into the grass on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield road course near the end. He’ll start 16th.

“It’s not an afternoon to remember,” said 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 series champion Hunter-Reay.

Almost all the higher-positioned points drivers were supplanted by a Rosenqvist-led contingent of eyebrow raisers in a Firestone Fast Six that also included Jack Harvey in third in the No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda for Meyer Shank Racing. It’s Harvey’s first Fast Six in 13 career starts.

“I don’t know if we expected to be third today,” Harvey said, “but we’ll take it. … It’s nice to be up here.”

Except for five-time series champion Scott Dixon ending up second next to his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, everyone else could be described as somewhat unexpected. Fourth-fastest qualifier Colton Herta has been at the front before — the rookie became the series’ youngest winner at 18 when his No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda claimed the INDYCAR Classic on March 24 at the Circuit of the Americas.

But who could have anticipated Herta again outperforming all four Andretti cars — especially when considering Herta’s small team contracts with Andretti Autosport to use the significantly larger team’s technical information.

“Those guys must be scratching their heads when they see Colton Herta up there,” said an amused Power. “I mean, they’re getting the data. They’re looking at it. Those boys must be wondering what’s going on.”

That was the story of the day for many.

Dixon proved in last year’s INDYCAR Grand Prix that starting farther back doesn’t sentence a driver to a disappointing result. He surged from 18th to finish second.

The 38-year-old New Zealander praised the younger drivers for providing an influx of promising talent that makes the series more competitive and appealing.

“It’s definitely keeping a lot of the veterans pretty honest,” Dixon said. “It’s new names, new people from a lot of different places, but obviously they’re all pretty quick so it’s great to see.”

The top Chevrolet in this field belonged to Ed Jones, who enjoyed the second-best qualifying effort of his three-year career. He’ll start fifth in the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing/Scuderia Corsa entry. He best finish this season is 14th. The only other time he started closer to the front was fourth at Detroit last year.

The familiar refrain by day’s end was that several race teams would be racking their brains overnight in Gasoline Alley in a search for speed. Power joked that he didn’t even need to try in the Fast Six, that he could have saved his tires and still finished sixth.

“It’s kind of confusing for us,” Power said. “The cars don’t feel that bad. Actually, they feel pretty reasonable. We don’t quite understand why we’re slow.”

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