Helio tops field; Danica 23rd of 24

Updated: May 23, 2010, 1:41 AM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Helio Castroneves put his foot down Saturday and proved he's still the one to beat at Indy.

Oreovicz: Helio On Wheels

Pole Day was revamped for the 94th Indy 500 and it appeared to be a rousing success. Even better was Helio Castroneves, as the three-time winner flat-out dominated to earn the pole. Story

The defending 500 champion and three-time race winner wrapped up a wild qualification day by topping 228 mph on two of his four laps, averaging 227.970 mph to win his fourth career Indianapolis 500 pole. Nobody, including Castroneves, had touched 227.9 in practice even on one lap.

Fans were so shocked by the burst of speed that they gave Castroneves standing ovations after his second, third and fourth laps.

"This place, you've got to expect the unexpected, my friend. That was a great result," said Castroneves, who now becomes the favorite as he tries to become the fourth man to win four Indy 500s. "I was ready. I didn't want to keep waiting and see all the times. I wanted to go for it."

The other eight drivers in the new pole "shootout" were relegated to taking aim at the No. 2 spot.

Castroneves tied A.J. Foyt and Rex Mays with his fourth Indy pole and will be joined on the front row by Penske teammate Will Power and Target Chip Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti. Australia's Power averaged 227.578 and will start from the middle of Row 1. Scotland's Franchitti averaged 226.990 and will start from the outside of the first row in the 11-row, 33-car field.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Robert Laberge/Getty Images Helio Castroneves, the defending Indy 500 champion, is on the pole for the fourth time.

It was about the only part of qualifying that went as expected.

The day was marred by three crashes including one that took out pole contender Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champ. Kanaan, a Brazilian like Castroneves, never got a second qualifying attempt Saturday.

Danica Patrick's struggles continued, too.

The series' glamour girl qualified 23rd at 224.217 and will start behind two other women -- Brazil's Ana Beatriz and Switzerland's Simona de Silvestro, who were 21st and 22nd, respectively. Patrick was nearly in danger of being bumped out of the field.

Race organizers filled the first 24 starting spots Saturday.

Worse yet, Patrick criticized her team for the qualifying setup during an interview on the public address system and then was booed by the crowd.

"Shoot, I say one confident thing out there and everybody boos me. I'm blown away," said Patrick, who never started worse than 10th in five previous Indy starts. "These people, I mean, I don't know, maybe they all booed me before. I would think that some of them cheered for me before, and I'm not a different driver than I was five years ago."

The track conditions were partly to blame for Patrick's problems.

After seven straight cool, overcast days, the sun finally peeked through the clouds during Alex Tagliani's first qualifying attempt at 11:17 a.m. and changed everything.

Tagliani, a Canadian, took advantage of his early qualifying spot and a still-cool track to grab the early lead at 226.392.

That didn't hold up under the new format, which gave the nine fastest cars up to six attempts to win the pole -- three to make the top nine and three more in the shootout.

As qualifying continued, most drivers complained about the slick track and increasing winds.

Castroneves was oblivious to all of it.

He regained the pole with a rare mid-afternoon run before locking up the 15 points and $175,000 payday with speeds that seemed to come from nowhere on the first run of the shootout.

"Those were big numbers, and I was sitting in the car thinking, 'What do they have that we don't have and how are we going to beat them?' " Franchitti said. "We just didn't have it today."

Nobody had enough to catch Castroneves, who extended Roger Penske's record of Indy pole victories to 16.

Tagliani wound up in the middle of Row 2 after failing three times in to top Castroneves in the shootout. Penske driver Ryan Briscoe will start on the inside of Row 2 and Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy champ, will start on the outside.

Fans embraced the new format, which eliminated the dull mid-afternoon hours when drivers waited for the track to cool so speeds would increase. Qualifiers spent nearly the entire 6 hours of available time on the track, and Franchitti enjoyed seeing the first-turn stands full.

"I've never seen that before," he said.

There was plenty of drama, too.

Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal were the big surprises, making it into the shootout after spending the week muddled in the middle of the speed charts. Carpenter, Tony George's stepson, will start eighth in his first race of the season after averaging 224.507. Rahal, driving for his father, Bobby, in a one-off deal will start seventh after going 225.519.

All five of Michael Andretti's drivers failed to make the top nine, and former Formula One driver Takuma Sato and Mario Moraes, teammates with KV Racing Technology, both hit the wall in the second turn. Sato wound up going to a local hospital for X-rays on his back. Moraes wound up getting back in the cockpit and qualifying 13th.

And Castroneves stunned everyone by going out for a third run with about 10 minutes left in the shootout. He eventually waved it off and stood on his time of 227.970 -- 3.5 mph faster than his pole-winning speed of last year and the fastest since former teammate Sam Hornish Jr. had an average of 228.985 in 2006.

"I wanted them in panic mode, I wanted to do everything to make sure they're like, 'OK, let's give up, let's go home," he joked. "It didn't seem that way. They were trying, trying and getting close. I had my hands tied because there was not much I could do. We had reached the limit."

Seven drivers were bumped out of the field Saturday.

Among the 13 drivers trying to make the starting grid on the second and final day of qualifications are Paul Tracy, who lost the disputed finish of 2002; Kanaan, a former Indy pole-sitter; and two women -- Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE