Fernandez wins pole for ALMS race


LONG BEACH, Calif. -- He has driven around the streets of Long Beach in Indy Lights, IndyCars, Grand-Am Prototypes and LMP2 cars. On Friday, Adrian Fernandez made a dazzling drive in the Aston Martin 007 entry and stole the pole position in the final minutes of the LMP qualifying for the Tequila Patron American Le Mans Series.

Fernandez is one of Mexico's most popular athletes and a fan favorite at the 36th Grand Prix of Long Beach, but his appearance here this weekend provides a rare glimpse of Aston Martin's new factory driver. He has moved to Switzerland and will race in the states only three times -- his only remaining appearance is at the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in October. The manufacturer is focused on winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and he will race five times in Europe.

Because the Aston Martin, which uses a modified Lola chassis, is built for the 8.4-mile Circuit de Sarthe instead of the twisty 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit, Fernandez didn't expect to be the No. 1 qualifier. He clocked 1 minute 13.213 seconds on his final lap with fewer than three minutes left in the session. He displaced Simon Pagenaud of Patron Highcroft Racing, who had a best of 1:13.285, but Pagenaud was still on track as Fernandez went to the pit. Pagenaud's 1:13.693 fell short but was still faster than any other time posted in the session.

"It was a good surprise. Tomorrow will be tough, but it will be good for you guys," Fernandez told the media afterward. "I was on the edge, very close to the walls, trying to get everything I could."

Harold Primat is likely to start the 100-minute race with Fernandez racing to the finish line after the mandatory driver change.

The Aston Martin, with a livery similar to the Ford GT car that won Le Mans four decades ago, is an LMP1 car based on last year's specifications, but the LMP1 and LMP2 classes have been combined to form one class this year. The Highcroft Honda Performance Development car driven by Pagenaud and David Brabham, is a more nimble LMP2 car that is lighter and quicker through the corners than the Aston Martin. It's power vs. finesse.

Last year, with his own Fernandez Racing, Fernandez won the LMP2 title driving an Acura, which has since pulled out of racing. That led to the opportunity to become a factory driver. He says the move from Phoenix to Lugano, Switzerland, suits him. He and wife Catalina have children ages 3 and 2, and he's able to spend time with them unlike the days when he was one of the most popular owner/drivers in Indy-style racing.

"I'm 47, still driving, I can't complain," Fernandez said. "I'm like wine. I'm just getting better with age. I'm more mature, more relaxed, I have nothing to prove, but I still do a very good job."

For fans of Fernandez -- and there are many as he created a huge Mexican presence in open wheel racing in the late '90's and early '00s -- he does not discount a return to Indycars as an owner, although as a savvy businessman it must make sense.

"I see myself racing in Europe for a long time," he said.

Power still the one to beat

Will Power is lurking. After winning the first two races of the season, he led the first practice session of IZOD IndyCar Series drivers Friday, and was fifth in the second session. With passing so difficult on the Long Beach course, there is a premium on qualifying.

Right now, Power seems to be the guy to beat. Not only does he already have two wins, he was the pole qualifier twice, he was the pole qualifier last year, and he was the winner of the final Champ Car World Series race at Long Beach in 2008 when he was driving for Team Australia, not Roger Penske.

"I'm not on Cloud 9," Power said of his early success. "The approach to my season hasn't changed. We're here to win a championship and I expected to be running at the front. I know it's going to be a tough championship, I know you have to be consistent throughout. This is a great start, but there's a long way to go. There's absolutely no celebrating, just hard work.

"It's amazing, you can look at the end of 2008 and I would have never imagined I would be right here right now, leading the championship and driving for Penske."

The defending series champion, Dario Franchitti, knows what Power brings to the table in his first full season for Penske.

"Will is always a threat on the street and road courses," said Franchitti, the defending race winner. "His team and him have done a fantastic job this year. It's up to us to go out and beat him."

The big news of the afternoon practice session might have been that there were four drivers who finished in front of Power, including Ryan Hunter-Reay, the parttime driver and leading point-scorer through three races for Andretti Autosport.

Hunter-Reay's time of 1 minute 10.6346 seconds was just better than Penske driver Ryan Briscoe. Tony Kanaan, Hunter-Reay's teammate at Andretti Autosport, was third.

Hunter-Reay said the session was "somewhat indicative" of how qualifying could go on Saturday. "If you find yourself in the top 10, you know you're in the ball park," he said.

Alex Tagliani, a part-owner of his one-car FAZZT Race Team, was an impressive fourth. Rounding out the top 10 were Justin Wilson at sixth, Franchittti, Mario Moraes and Penske driver Helio Castroneves.

Patrick struggles again

Danica Patrick continued to struggle. She was 23rd out of 25 drivers in the second session. She had been 21st in the early session.

The fastest woman on the day was rookie Simona de Silvestro, who was 15th in both sessions.

Milka Duno was the the slowest in the 25-driver field in both sessions and never broke 1 minute 19 seconds. She was more than seven seconds slower than No. 24 Alex Lloyd in the second session.

Remarkably, all 18 drivers in the Firestone Indy Lights Series posted faster times than Duno, and 14 drivers were more than two seconds faster.

Fast laps

Sebastian Saavedra, who drives for team owner Bryan Herta of Valencia, led practice in the Firestone Indy Lights series with a time of 1 minute 15.1732 seconds. He finished ahead of James Hinchcliffe, Martin Plowman and Charlie Kimball of Camarillo. ....Former Champ Car driver and current IndyCar owner Jimmy Vasser was the fastest qualifier for the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race scheduled for Saturday. Vasser, the 1996 series champion, was about 1.5 seconds faster than the fastest celebrity, actor Zachary Levi, whose lap of 1:47.141 was the only one to rank among the six professionals. Levi was fifth overall, behind Vasser, Tanner Foust, Steve Millen and Marty Nothstein. Keanu Reeves, last year's winner and competing this year as a pro, was sixth overall. Rounding out the top five celebrities were actors Adrien Brody and Brian Austin Green, comedian Adam Carolla and singer Jesse McCartney.