Hunter-Reay looks to get title defense back on track

Ryan Hunter-Reay's first official race as reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion didn't end well, as mechanical problems sidelined him and his No. 1 DHL/Sun-Drop Chevrolet after 79 laps in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (March 24).

But the American has a golden opportunity to bounce back today at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. Yesterday in qualifying, Hunter-Reay bagged the pole position for the 90-lap race (3 pm ET, NBC Sports Network) with a time of 67.0871 seconds in the Firestone Fast Six — enough to nip his 2012 title rival, Will Power, for the top spot.

"You know this team has done so well this weekend – we just kept progressing," said Hunter-Reay. "We knew where we needed to work on it, and I really went to work on my driving as well. We all did it together here. It's a great position to start from. Now we gotta make it work in [morning] warmup for the race – make these Firestones hang in there for the entire race; that will be the challenging part."

Power, also the defending Barber race champion, will start on the outside of Row 1 despite being accused by James Hinchcliffe of holding him up and causing him to fail to advance to the second round of qualifying. Row 2 will feature impressive rookie Tristan Vautier from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon, while Charlie Kimball and Helio Castroneves qualified fifth and sixth respectively.

A.J. Allmendinger will make his first open-wheel run since 2006 this afternoon, and put himself in decent position yesterday on the grid. The former Champ Car star, who will now race at Long Beach as part of his preparation for the Indy 500, will go off 10th after breaking into the second round on Saturday. His progress today will be one of the key storylines; there's no doubt of his talent but how will he stack up in his first time out against an incredibly deep field?

We'll also have to keep tabs on several big names that will be forced to come from the rear of the field. Simon Pagenaud and Simona de Silvestro (qualified 13th and 14th respectively) are starting from mid-pack, but they're better off than the likes of Dario Franchitti (17th), Tony Kanaan (19th), Hinchcliffe (20th) and Sebastien Bourdais (23rd).

Finally, there's the matter of the drivers looking to get a grip — and keep it! Barber's 2.3-mile road course underwent grinding over the offseason, and that has led to faster speeds and new track records. Maintaining tires will be massively critical over the course of today's event, so keep an eye on who can stretch 'em out a little bit farther.