Scott Dixon qualifies second for season-opening race in St Petersburg
Scott Dixon will start second in the season-opening IndyCar race in St Petersburg, Florida, on Monday (NZ time) behind Australian Will Power.
Dixon's starting spot is three higher than in 2016 when he qualified fifth and ultimately finished seventh.
The St Petersburg race is one that Dixon has never won, with his best result being second in 2006, 2007 and 2012.
This year will be the seventh pole in eight years at St Petersburg for Power, who was also on pole last year, but he became ill after his qualifying lap and IndyCar ultimately benched him for the race because of concussion-like symptoms.
It turned out Power had an ear infection, and not racing in the opener likely cost him a chance to win the championship. Power finished second in the standings last year to Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud.
Dixon qualified second Sunday (NZ time) in the new Honda that Chip Ganassi Racing is fielding this year, followed by James Hinchcliffe. New Penske driver Josef Newgarden qualified fourth while Takuma Sato and Tony Kanaan round out the final six for Monday's (NZT) race.
The third turn of the circuit was reconfigured the day before Indy cars hit the 2.9-kilometre, 14-turn temporary street circuit. What once was a fast, sweeping right-hand turn now has curbing that changed the apex and made the corner a traditional braking area. Also, 55 metres of wall on the drivers' left side was moved back almost 12 metres.
"I would say turn three is going to be the biggest difference on passing," Graham Rahal said. "Turn three is obviously so much tighter now with a brake zone there and stuff. It will be interesting to see."
The track has retained its character, although it was repaved last month, with new asphalt on about 70 percent of the circuit.
"It's definitely different," Kanaan said. "I was expecting there to be a little more grip and for it to be smoother. In other words, I was expecting us to lose a little of the beauty of this track."
It wasn't all smooth sailing for the Penske group, despite two drivers in the top four. Reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves failed to advance to the second round of qualifying. Pagenaud will start 14th, Castroneves 16th.
Although a Chevy won the pole, Honda qualified nine drivers in the top 12. The manufacturer has been overshadowed by Chevy since Chevy returned to IndyCar in 2012.
One Honda driver who had expected better qualifying results but failed to get it was Marco Andretti, who qualified 15th. Andretti is trying to be looser in the car and stop overthinking the decade of struggles he's had searching for success.
"This is hard to swallow, Andretti said. "This one hurts. We're faster than this - last year we went to the back of the field and had the pace to come back through, so we're going to have to do that."
JUAN PABLO MONTOYA'S FUTURE
Juan Pablo Montoya won this race the last two years, but isn't part of the field because he took a deal with Team Penske to run only the Indianapolis 500.
But team owner Roger Penske has added another race to Montoya's schedule and will enter him in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis two weeks before the Indy 500. Montoya will be driving a fifth Penske car.
Also, Penske said Montoya is in the mix for a role with a sports car team if the owner can get a program put together for next year.
"We'd like to put all the pieces together and hopefully will have something by mid-summer if we're going to go for next year," Penske said. "I don't want to wait another year, to be honest with you. We've waited a year now.
"If we run a sports car program (Montoya's) on the top of the list of those to drive for us. That was part of the discussion. When we talked about wanting to run him this, when we talked about doing this, he'd be at the top of the list."
It was a rough opening qualifying session for Sebastien Bourdais, who spun off the track during his run. His car was towed back and his qualifying session came to an abrupt end.
It was a disappointing start to the year for Bourdais, who joined Dale Coyne Racing this season and brought two top engineers with him. Bourdais also lives in St. Pete, so the event is considered his home race.
Bourdais will start last in the 21-car field.