Alex Palou is on the pole at Laguna Seca. (Mark Munoz Photo)

Alex Palou Rockets To IndyCar Pole At Laguna Seca

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing operated with the skill and precision of a surgeon, winning the pole on Saturday for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

This weekend’s contest is at the 2.238-mile, 11-turn WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca on the Monterey Peninsula of the Central California coast.

It was Palou’s fifth career NTT IndyCar Series pole and the second of the season.

“It was really tough, really tight all qualifying to get to Fast 12 and then the Fast Six,” Palou said. “It was really tricky because of the winds; you couldn’t get the grip.

“But this is a great starting position for Sunday. It always is the best place to start and hopefully, there aren’t a lot of cautions to screw up the strategy.”

Starting on the pole at Monterey is important because 16 of the 26 IndyCar Series race winners at Laguna Seca have come from the pole, but the past two race winners started 11th.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was the fastest driver in Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six with a best lap of 1:07.1465 in the No. 10 DHL Honda. That was better than Andretti Global’s Kyle Kirkwood, who clocked in at 1:07.2205 in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda.

“Clean air around this place, you can’t replace with anything,” Kirkwood said. “I’m happy to be on the front row and proud to be powered by Honda. A really good day. We executed super well.

“I’m happy with the progress we have made.”

Felix Rosenqvist of Meyer Shank Racing was third in the No. 60 Honda at 1:07.2917. Andretti Global’s Colton Herta was fourth at 1:07.2972 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda.

Alexander Rossi of Arrow McLaren was the fastest Chevrolet driver at 1:07.3594 with Christian Lundgaard’s No. 45 Honda rounding out the Fast Six at 1:07.5112 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Group One, Segment One

Rossi went to P1 as the last car across the checkered flag with a few cars left on the track, but Romain Grosjean took the top spot in the closing seconds of the 10-minute session.

But the best story was David Malukas, in his first race of the season while recovering from a fractured left wrist, advanced into the next round while IndyCar’s all-time pole winner, Will Power, did not.

Malukas was sixth at 1:07.8255 in the No. 66 Honda. Power was eighth at 1:08.0178 in the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet for Team Penske.

“I probably waited in the pit too long, didn’t get enough tire temp and was off cycle,” Power said. “You can’t screw around.”

Agustin Canapino of Juncos Hollinger was seventh, the first driver that didn’t make the cut, at 1:07.8976 in the No. 78 Chevrolet.

The drivers that advanced included Grosjean at 1:07.6813 in the No. 77 Chevrolet, Alexander Rossi’s 1:07.7175 in the No. 7 Chevy for Arrow McLaren, Marcus Armstrong’s 1:07.7208 in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon’s 1:07.7296 in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda, Scott McLaughlin’s 1:07.7931 in the No. 3 Chevrolet and Malukas.

Missing out were Canapino, Power, Santino Ferrucci, Graham Rahal, Christian Rasmussen, Nolan Siegel and Sting Ray Robb.

Group Two, Segment One

In the second group, Christian Lundgaard was completing his lap after the checkered flag waved and that was enough to bump two-time and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden out as the final driver to advance.

Lundgaard’s last lap in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was 1:07.6087 and Newgarden’s time in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet was 1:07.7246.

“I think it’s just me today, the car is good, I’m struggling to put it together,” Newgarden said. “The car has been good from the get-go; we just need to put it together in the race. We are chasing both ends of the car. It keeps moving around, but the car was pretty good.

“I don’t think that was the issue.”

Alex Palou was the fastest in that group at 1:07.2751 in the No. 10 DHL Honda. Herta was second at 1:07.3090 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda followed by Andretti Global’s Kyle Kirkwood at 1:07.3232 in the No. 27 Honda, Pato O’Ward’s 1:07.3825 in the No. 5 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren. Felix Rosenqvist’s 1:07.4216 in the No. 60 Honda for Meyer Shank Racing and Lundgaard rounded out the six that advanced.

Drivers that did not advance included Newgarden, Linus Lundqvist, Marcus Ericsson, Rinus VeeKay, Kyffin Simpson, Pietro Fittipaldi, Jack Harvey and Luca Ghiotto.

Group Two

The second round featured some interesting strategies by the drivers and teams to time their laps and get temperature in the tires at the right time. Grosjean went for speed early on the alternate Reds and that held up for most of the session.

But as each driver went faster, Grosjean’s speed went out of advancing into the Fast Six, missing by just three-hundredths of a second.

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin was the first driver that did not advance as no drivers from that famed team made it into the Fast Six.

“It’s tight,” McLaughlin said. “I had a slide in turn six and that cost me on the hill.

“It’s IndyCar – there is a tenth between seven cars. You can’t make a mistake.”

Palou was the fastest driver in the second round at 1:07.2572 followed by Honda drivers Kirkwood (1:07.2841), Herta (1:07.3150) and Rosenqvist (1:07.3157). Chevy driver Rossi was fifth at 1:07.3638 and Lundgaard was the last driver to advance into the Fast Six at 1:07.3725.

Missing the cut were McLaughlin, Grosjean, O’Ward, Dixon, Armstrong and Malukas.

Grosjean was upset with drivers slowing down after posting their first lap in comments he made afterward, but much of that has to do with finding the right gap on a qualification attempt.

Each of the first two rounds were 10 minutes long, but the Firestone Fast Six was six minutes in duration, condensing the amount of time to make the flying lap for the pole.