Motor racing: O'Ward takes pole, Grosjean grabs IndyCar spotlight

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(Reuters) - Mexico's Patricio O'Ward put Arrow McLaren on pole on Saturday for the IndyCar season opening Alabama Grand Prix while Frenchman Romain Grosjean made a strong impression in his series debut, qualifying seventh.

O'Ward was joined on the front row at Barber Motorsports Park by Andretti Autosports Alexander Rossi while Spaniard Alex Palou qualified third-fastest for Chip Ganassi Racing ahead of Penske Racing's Will Power.

New Zealand's Scott Dixon, the six-time defending series champion who is bidding to equal AJ Foyt's record of seven titles, will start fifth for Sunday's race ahead of Ganassi teammate Sweden's Marcus Ericsson.

"I want to win races," said O'Ward. "We want to give these vets like (Josef) Newgarden and Dixon that already have multiple championships under their belt something to think of, a little bit of more stress than what they might have the past few years."

While O'Ward took pole it was Grosjean, the ex-Haas Formula One driver, who grabbed the spotlight with a spectacular qualifying effort for Dale Coyne Racing in his first IndyCar start after nine seasons in Formula One.

A veteran of 179 Formula One races, Grosjean, wearing a helmet designed by his children, was back to competitive racing for the first time since November in Bahrain, when his Haas rocketed off the circuit, piercing a metal barrier and erupted in flames before he made a miraculous escape.

"What a day, seventh in qualifying, that’s clearly above expectations," said Grosjean, who also celebrated his 35th birthday on Saturday. "We’ve done really good work with the set up and I think we know where to look to go faster which is very positive."

Scott McLaughlin, a three-time champion in Australia's V8 SuperCars Series, and another hugely experienced driver looking to make his mark in IndyCar qualified 12th for series powerhouse outfit Penske Racing,

It was not such a positive start for seven-times NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson who has faced a steep learning curve making the move from stock cars to open wheel racing spending most of the day near the bottom of the timing tables.

After placing last of 24 cars in both practice sessions, the 45-year-old rookie improved on those performances in qualifying, placing 21st.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)