Scheckter: "There's still a lot more to show them"

Updated: March 5, 2005, 6:16 PM ET
Associated Press

Tomas Scheckter
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Tomas Scheckter put Panther Racing out front Saturday with Chevrolet power, easily winning the pole for the season-opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The son of former Formula One champion Jody Scheckter got around the 1½-mile oval at 215.115 mph in a Dallara, nearly a full mile per hour faster than the 214.317 by runner-up Vitor Meira's Honda-powered Panoz.

GM Racing has struggled in the IndyCar Series since Honda and Toyota brought their engines to the series in 2003 and will pull its Chevrolet Indy V-8s out of the series after 2005. Meanwhile, the company is focusing its IndyCar efforts on Panther, fielding cars for Scheckter and Tomas Enge.

So far, so good.

Enge, in his first season with Panther, was a solid third at 214.152 Saturday with the other Chevy-Dallara.

Three more Honda-powered cars followed. Buddy Rice, last year's Indianapolis 500 winner and an early favorite to win the championship this year, was fourth at 214.006, with Dario Franchitti next at 213.899 and Scott Sharp sixth at 213.463.

Helio Castroneves was seventh at 213.313 in the fastest Toyota-powered car, with Penske teammate Hornish close behind at 212.887.

A Chevrolet-powered car has not won a race in the IRL since then-Panther Racing star Sam Hornish Jr. took the checkered flag at California Speedway two races from the end of the 2003 season.

"What you saw qualifying is what we're going to race,'' said Joe Negri, GM Racing's IRL program manager. "We aren't backing down this year. Peddle to the metal. We've got nothing to lose.''

Danica Patrick, a 22-year-old rookie and the only woman racing in the IndyCar Series this season, joined Team Rahal teammates Rice and Meira in the top half of the 22-car field. Her 212.871 was good enough for ninth place on the grid.

"To be honest, I'm relieved this (qualifying) is over with,'' she said. "I was definitely nervous beforehand. Now I'm just looking back wishing I would have done this or that different.

"One thing that hasn't changed for me from my days in karting through Atlantics to now in IndyCars is I still come away ticked off sometimes that I wasn't a little quicker. Heading into tomorrow, I'll be smart and try not to make any stupid moves that could possibly put me in a bad frame of mind from the get-go.''

Negri said he wasn't the least bit surprised to take two of the top three starting spots for Sunday's 300-mile race.

"We felt last year that by the end of the season we were right there,'' he said. "Obviously, we made gains and the competition made gains. I think you can pretty much say we're going to be in the hunt. The Panther guys haven't forgotten how to win races.''

Panther was an elite team in the IRL before Hornish left for Team Penske after the 2003 season. He won 11 races and two championships for Panther -- and for Chevrolet -- in a three-year span. Last year, neither Scheckter nor Townsend Bell, who left Panther during the season, were able to post anything higher than a fifth-place finish.

But Scheckter said he has been feeling confident since preseason testing.

"Last year the whole year I had to make excuses,'' the South African-born driver said. "A lot of people have been putting us down. But the team has worked hard and Chevrolet has worked hard. When it comes to showing what we've got, we've showed them and there's still a lot more to show them, as well.''

His sixth career pole and first since the Michigan race in the summer of 2003, when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, was also the first pole for Chevy since Richie Hearn took the top spot at Chicagoland Speedway late in the 2003 season.

"It's great to be on the pole, but the main thing is the race,'' Scheckter said. "All I did yesterday (in practice) was work on the race setup. I've got a fairly decent qualifying car, but I've got a great race car.''

Defending series champion Tony Kanaan, who won the title with consistency, finishing every lap of every race, qualified a disappointing 14th Saturday.

"Tomorrow is a long race,'' the Brazilian driver said. "If we have a good race car, you can make up a lot of positions on this track.''

Ryan Brisco, a rookie driving for Ganassi, crashed hard in practice Saturday morning and chose to sit out qualifying. He will start Sunday's race last in a backup entry.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press