Castroneves reels in Franchitti to grab Indy pole
Dario Franchitti had the fastest qualifying laps on Pole Day for more than five hours at Indy. But Helio Castroneves was fastest when it counted most, writes John Oreovicz.
INDIANAPOLIS -- They say you can't manufacture drama. But there was plenty of it in evidence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Pole Day.
The new qualification format for the Indianapolis 500 certainly contributed to the tension. It allowed a pair of Brazilians to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat within a three-minute span as Team Penske's Helio Castroneves claimed his second pole for the Memorial Day Classic.
Castroneves and Tony Kanaan took advantage of Indy's new qualifying rules (which allow each driver as many as three four-lap runs per day) to withdraw their earlier speeds to make exciting, last-minute efforts.
Castroneves' run starting at 5:53 p.m. toppled Dario Franchitti from the top of the scoring pylon, which had been occupied by the No. 27 Andretti Green Racing pilot for more than five hours.
Four minutes later, Franchitti's teammate Kanaan started a run that ultimately came up just short in denying his countryman the top starting spot and the $100,000 prize that accompanies it. The 6 o'clock gun fired during Kanaan's third lap, and at the time, he was up on Castroneves' 225.817 mph average.
But an Indianapolis qualifying run constitutes four laps, and Kanaan's 225.358-mph final tour was slow enough to drop his overall average to 225.757 mph.
"I don't think AGR likes me very much because this is the same way I got my last pole here [in 2003]," said Castroneves. "Tony did a great job and Andretti Green is an incredible team. They make us keep pushing.
"My team said, 'We're behind you 100 percent if you want to make another try,' " Helio added. "It was a good decision to put the car back in line. They trust me, we kept digging and we found what we needed."
The 32-year-old Sao Paulo native earned Team Penske's 14th Indy pole to match its 14 race wins. Castroneves is responsible for two of those race wins, in 2001 and '02. Castroneves is also the IRL's career pole leader with 19.
Franchitti posted 225.191 mph as the number to beat at 12:53 p.m. and spent the next five hours working on his tan in pit lane with wife Ashley Judd. With Castroneves' and Kanaan's runs coming so late, the Scotsman was unable to get back in his car and respond.
Dario wasn't too upset despite his late slide from pole to the outside of the front row, matching his best career starting position at Indianapolis.
"I'm pleasantly surprised because I was expecting about a 224.5," Franchitti reported. "The car was on the edge from corner to corner and I was adjusting to keep it in the envelope.
"It's certainly a big change from a year ago when no one from Andretti Green was even close to the pole."
This year, AGR qualified all five of its entries on Indy's first qualifying day, when only the top 11 cars are locked into the field. Danica Patrick will start immediately ahead of Marco Andretti in eighth place, while team owner Michael Andretti survived an hour on the Pole Day "bubble" to earn the 11th spot.
"I'm very proud of the team, especially the teamwork between Tony and Dario," said Michael, who will make his 16th attempt at winning Indianapolis.
While Team Penske grabbed the pole and put defending race winner Sam Hornish Jr. fifth on the grid, heavily favored Target/Ganassi Racing walked away disappointed after Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon qualified fourth and sixth.
Both Ganassi drivers made second attempts during the 5 o'clock hour, but they didn't gain enough speed to even move up to the front row.
Wheldon called his initial 223.686-mph effort "dismal" and he found only 1 mph more when he went out later. "There's definitely more speed in our car, but for some reason we didn't get it out."
Hornish added to the excitement with a pair of qualifying runs that each had a hairy moment in Turn 1. Those bobbles were enough to deny the Ohioan a second consecutive Indy pole.
"The same thing happened, just in different parts of the run," he said. "For whatever reason, our car wasn't as consistent over a four-lap run as we would like it to have been. Both times we ended up in the same scenario where I was getting ready to close my eyes and get ready to hit the wall."
Roger Penske has won and lost poles at Indianapolis and even failed to qualify by not getting the strategy right. But IndyCar racing's most successful team had everything timed right on Saturday.
"We really rolled the dice there at then end and we knew Kanaan would be strong," Penske stated. "But we've done that in the past with [Rick] Mears and with Helio.
"The new format was fantastic and it put some spirit back into qualifications like we used to see," Penske added.
Indeed, the prospect of the quick guys and girls getting more than one shot at the pole kept things interesting right up to the final gun. It's a shame that more fans weren't there to see it, with attendance estimated at 20,000 on a perfect Indiana spring day.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the new format, though it depended on your perspective.
"I really think it was a success," Franchitti said. "But what a horrible, stressful day, though ..."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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