Castroneves sprints to pole, Hornish will start second
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The temperature was scorching during qualifying for Sunday's Firestone Indy 400 (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), but the drivers really feeling the heat are the ones trying to catch Sam Hornish Jr. in the standings.
The Penske cars driven by Hornish and Helio Castroneves qualified 1-2 on Saturday, with Castroneves taking the pole and series leader Hornish hot on his tail in second.
While qualifying up front isn't critical at the second-longest race of the season on the IndyCar Series circuit, Castroneves' 216.777 mph and Hornish's 216.466 put the rest of the paddock on notice; the Penske cars are the ones to beat.
"Sam and I have been sharing information, and I think it's been benefiting both of us," Castroneves said. "... We met this morning and we both knew we had fast cars. Maybe the wind helped me out and made me a little quicker. We predicted we'd be about where we're at.
"We're very happy."
But before you believe in the Penske love-fest, it needs to be pointed out Castroneves trails his partner by 30 points in the standings. He admits he has to do everything he can to beat Hornish on Sunday, and the rest of the season.
"I wish we got points for grabbing the pole position, but obviously we'll have to earn them another way," Castroneves said. "Sam is certainly the guy I'm watching the closest."
Castroneves has even worked out the title scenario in his head.
"Absolutely, I have to beat him," Castroneves said. "He's 30 points ahead. If I finish first the next three races I would take at least 10 points off him per race, and that would mean we were tied going into the last race.
"That's why we need to make sure we finish ahead of him."
Other drivers will have a say in that, including Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, who sits in second in the standings and trails Hornish by 25, and Ganassi's Dan Wheldon, who trails by 32. But they were off the pace Saturday, with Dixon qualifying fifth and Wheldon ninth.
"We were a lot better this morning in practice when we were running in the 215-mph range," Dixon said. "I'm not sure why we were so slow in qualifying. This Michigan track is a challenging place and the track doesn't have much grip. The starting position actually doesn't really matter as long as you are in the top 10."
Wheldon -- the series' defending champion -- agreed the race was critical to his hopes of making up the 32-point deficit to Hornish.
"It's very important to get a good result here," he said. "Right now we seem to be struggling a bit. We're working together as a team and we'll see what we can accomplish."
Tony Kanaan broke out the third-fastest lap Saturday, but was still more than 2 mph off the pace at 214.763 mph. With no points on the line in qualifying, the winner of last week's race in Milwaukee said he was hoping to maintain some momentum.
"We never really worked on a qualifying setup today," he said. "We've just focused on the race. ... We're carrying some momentum from our win last week in Milwaukee. Michigan is a completely different kind of track, but the team is pumped, I'm excited and I think something has carried over to this weekend."
At 79 points behind Hornish, there's likely little Kanaan can do to catch up in the standings. But building more momentum, for he and his Andretti Green Racing team, would be a big boost as they look ahead to next year and the inclusion of Danica Patrick in the stable of drivers.
K. Lee Davis is the motorsports editor at ESPN.com.
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