Rookie of the year contender Colton Herta took the pole position and the four season championship contenders all filed into the top six starting positions. But the conversation following Saturday's qualifying round at the NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey revolved around Felix Rosenqvist.
The driver of Chip Ganassi Racing's no. 10 NTT Data Honda and leader in rookie of the year points going into the season finale set the fastest laps in the second session of knockout qualifying at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. During the session, however, Rosenqvist lost control in turn 6, kicking dust and debris on the track. Although such off track events were common throughout qualifying, IndyCar officials judged that the incident impeded the trailing car.
While IndyCar officials insisted that James Hinchcliffe in the no. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Honda lost seven-tenths of a second because of Rosenqvist's spin, he still advanced to the next round in the qualifying session. And many on the paddock and in the press did not see interference in the incident. IndyCar penalized Rosenqvist by disqualifying his two quickest laps (citing rule 126.96.36.199). Even though his third fastest lap was good enough for Rosenqvist to advance, officials refused the time, relegating him to 14th on Sunday's starting grid.
"I think it's unfair," Rosenqvist says. "It ruined our day. We were working for three days for this."
When the front runners met with media after Saturday's qualifying, they expressed sympathy for the rookie driver. "To be fair to Felix, he had been fast all weekend," series points leader Josef Newgarden told reporters. "He had the speed to be up front."
Herta has been quick all weekend, as well. He led or ran near the top of the practice sessions and outpaced second-place qualifier Scott Dixon in the no. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing entry by four-hundreds of a second.
"I knew if we put a lap together we could be on pole," Herta said. "Obviously we have one lap pace. We're looking at race pace."
Herta, driver of the no. 88 Capstone Honda is 48 points behind Rosenqvist in rookie of the year points. Santino Ferrucci, who starts 12th on Sunday, sits 26 points back.
But the four drivers with hopes of a season championship all qualified in the top six. Dixon starts on the outside pole, but must win the race to have a shot at the title. Points leader Newgarden in the no. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet lines up fourth on the grid, one slot behind no. 27 Napa Auto Parts Andretti Autosport Honda of Alexander Rossi, who is second, 41 points down. Simon Pagenaud and is no. 22 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet starts from the sixth position, 42 points down.
"We are all three, ready to go," Newgarden told reporters. "Funny how that works out."
Newgarden had a shot at pole position, being quickest in the first session. The team took a risk, saving the best tires for one final run during the last session. But Newgarden slipped off track exiting turn 2.
"I knew I was on a good lap," he said afterward. "I went really deep [into turn 2]. It was too much."
The green flag waves for Sunday's 90-lap Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at 12:15 p.m.