Hunter-Reay scores Long Beach pole

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- There isn't much that Ryan Hunter-Reay hasn't accomplished in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

The 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion earned arguably the most important win of his career in the 2010 edition of the Long Beach Grand Prix. He even met his future wife at the historic Southern California street race.

But Saturday, RHR achieved something that had eluded him to date at what he calls one of his favorite circuits: He sped to pole position for Sunday afternoon's 80-lap race.

Hunter-Reay prevailed through IndyCar's three-stage knockout qualifying to edge his Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe by a little more than a tenth of a second to lead the 23-car field. The pole time was 1 minute, 7.8219 seconds for an average speed of 104.462 mph.

"Qualifying here for us has been frustrating of late," Hunter-Reay said. "We've been on the outside of the front row by hundredths of a second -- not by tenths, by hundredths -- so it was really satisfying to get pole here.

"Today the top six were covered by about two tenths," he added. "Locking a brake or missing a curb by a couple inches can make the difference from making the Fast Six or not advancing."

Beyond the all-Andretti front row, the front of the IndyCar field has an unusual look at Long Beach. Three-time LBGP winner Sebastien Bourdais qualified third for KV Racing Technology, while places 4-6 were filled by rising American Josef Newgarden, English rookie Jack Hawksworth and French star Simon Pagenaud as five of the top six entries were powered by Honda engines.

The fastest Ganassi Racing driver was defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who narrowly missed earning a spot in the Fast Six. Tony Kanaan was 13th and Ryan Briscoe 18th.

Meanwhile, Team Penske fared even worse, with Helio Castroneves ninth, championship leader Will Power 14th and Juan Pablo Montoya 16th.

"Very unusual," said Hunter-Reay. "I don't know the last time that happened, but I guarantee you it was a long time ago."

Not all is lost for the Penske and Ganassi teams. Power won Long Beach in 2012 from 12th on the grid, having taken a 10-place penalty for an unapproved engine change.

Way back in 1983, the last time Long Beach was a Formula One race, McLaren teammates John Watson and Niki Lauda finished 1-2 after starting 23rd and 22nd respectively.

Still, Power and Montoya were reportedly unhappy with the shifting action on their cars and were seen huddling with Chevrolet engineers after the qualifying session.

"It's definitely bizarre not to see them up there, but they are going to be a factor in the race," said Hinchcliffe.

Potentially the biggest factor in Sunday's race is the standing start, the first at Long Beach for the current generation of turbocharged engines and DW12 chassis. The last LBGP using the Panoz DP01 chassis featured a standing start, as did all eight F1 races run at Long Beach.

Although the drivers were provided a box in which to practice starts when leaving the pits, many are still wary about the procedure on a narrow street circuit lined with concrete walls.

INDYCAR used a standing start with the DW12 for the first time at Toronto in July 2013, and it was repeated for one of the twin races at Houston later in the season.

"It's going to be more difficult here than anywhere else," said Hinchcliffe. "It's a curved straight, and it's a cambered straight. If you get wheelspin off the line, your car will start crabbing. It's going to interesting to see how it shakes out, to be honest."

Even though he will have the cleanest shot to the first corner, Hunter-Reay is also wary of the standing start.

"People always want to compare it to the standing starts in Formula One, but F1 has a track the size of a football field and we have a swimming pool," he said. "There's not a lot of room to avoid somebody if they have a problem at the start.

"I just think we should do it one way or the other," RHR added. "Switching back and forth between races, I just don't understand. But if the fans like standing starts and that's what sells more tickets or fills more seats, I'm all for it."

Another variable likely to factor in the race is tire management. Firestone's red sidewall alternate tires are about a second a lap quicker than the standard black tires.

"The red tires were unbelievable," said Castroneves, the 2001 LBGP winner. "It completely changed the handling on the car. We obviously want to start in the front, but with the standing start I feel like we can still be in good position."

But the man to beat is Hunter-Reay, who is hoping that his magical run at Long Beach continues with another LBGP win.

"Back in 2010, I got the opportunity with Michael Andretti, but we didn't know if we would have sponsorship to finish the season," Hunter-Reay recalled. "All the Izod people were here and to put it all together and get that win was a career-defining moment and a great personal moment.

"But you should expect the unexpected," he said. "Different fuel strategies, different tire strategies, and the standing start ... anything could happen. There is no event like Long Beach and this is definitely the template for street races."