Ryan Hunter-Reay bounced back from a rough opening day at Edmonton on Saturday with a pole-winning run that surprised the IndyCar Series points leader.
Because Hunter-Reay went into the qualifying session knowing he'll be penalized 10 spots on Sunday's starting grid for an unapproved engine change, his Andretti Autosport team gambled on using older tires when rain began to fall midway through the qualifying session. The tire choice was based on Hunter-Reay hoping to start between 11th and 14th after the penalty.
"We worked really hard to come to the decision to go to the used reds (tires)," he said. "Instead we went and got the pole, so double bonus."
Hunter-Reay has won the past three IndyCar races to move into the points lead. He's the first American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to lead the IndyCar standings, and after picking up a point for winning the pole, he'll take a 35-point lead over Will Power into Sunday's race.
It is only the second pole of Hunter-Reay's IndyCar career. The previous was in 2004 at Milwaukee.
He'll start 11th once the penalty is applied.
"It's certainly unfortunate to take the grid penalty with our first pole this year, my first pole in a long time," he said. "But we'll take it for sure — 11th is better than starting 15th or 16th."
Hunter-Reay had a rough Friday at Edmonton, where he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for running James Jakes wide on the course during the first practice session. Then IndyCar said he'd be penalized for changing his Chevrolet engine, which is not allowed this year under new series rules before an engine has run 1,850 miles.
But he bounced back with a strong qualifying run that snapped Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti's string of three consecutive poles. He's not counting on anything Sunday.
"These races change so much. In the first 15 laps, it could turn on its head, so we have no idea," he said. "I have a long way to go, even from 11th. It's going to be a long day, tough to get up there. Hopefully we'll get some strategy right, make some passes on the track, and be there in the top five towards the end."
Franchitti, in a Honda, qualified second but will start first on Sunday because of Hunter-Reay's penalty. He hasn't been feeling well all weekend, and blamed it on something he caught during the off week.
"I feel pretty under the weather, to be honest," Franchitti said. "I was back in Scotland, got a throat infection and a head cold. It's catching up with me a little bit. I don't think it's slowed us down on the track any, so that's what's important."
Ryan Briscoe qualified third and was followed by Takuma Sato, Alex Tagliani and Helio Castroneves.
It was a different Fast Six field, as Power and Scott Dixon, who sit second and fourth in the standings, both failed to advance to the final round. Power was knocked out by Penske Racing teammate Briscoe in the final seconds of the second round.
Rain began to fall at Edmonton at the conclusion of Group 2, and it changed the strategies for the 12 drivers in the second round. Power said the rain and driver error contributed to his poor qualifying run.
"Everyone went out on wets and the track was kind of sprinkled with water," he said. "Made a mistake in (Turn) one, and that was it, that was just foolish of me not to know that."
After the session, his Penske team said it will change Power's Chevy engine, so he'll start 17th instead of seventh on Sunday.
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric posted on Twitter the team decided to change Power's engine to get the latest spec from Chevrolet because Hunter-Reay and Dixon are also taking penalties.
"We don't give up much. Just need a good start + luck," he tweeted.
Power and Hunter-Reay have both won three consecutive races this year, with Power's three wins coming in the first month of the season. Power said he knows what he needs on Sunday to move closer to re-claiming the points lead he lost to Hunter-Reay after Toronto two weeks ago.
"We've just got to have a good day," he said. "Just bad day after bad day after bad day — gotta have a good result."
Hunter-Reay and Power are among four drivers who have already been informed by IndyCar they'll be penalized for engine changes. The other two are Dixon and Simona de Silvestro, who have surpassed the five-engine limit for the season and will be penalized for every engine change over the final five races.
"Everybody here has swallowed that pill. It's part of it," Hunter-Reay said. "It's just the way the series is this year. We can argue all day if 10 spots or five spots is right. It definitely hurts when it happens, that's for sure."