Andretti Green, Target Chip Ganassi, Penske rise to the forefront

Updated: May 9, 2008

AP Photo/AJ Mast

Ganassi's Scott Dixon topped the speed charts in practice Friday at 226.968 mph.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's little mystery that the big three teams of the IndyCar Series will be the lead players in Saturday's run for the pole at the 92nd Indianapolis 500. They've claimed it five of the past six years. What figures to make matters interesting is how many other teams will play supporting roles.

Pole Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (ABC, 3 p.m. ET) will set the first 11 places on the grid, and while Andretti Green Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske chase P1 and the rest of the front row, a horde of teams will chase P11.

Teams that don't make it in Saturday will return for second-day qualifying Sunday, which secures positions 12-22. Fail there, and next weekend's third-day qualifying and Bump Day await.

Friday's practice under cold, overcast skies gave a hint of how busy Saturday could be, as a full grid's worth of drivers -- 33 -- turned laps in a long-awaited practice. Wednesday and Thursday were complete washouts after two days of rookie orientation and just one day of full-field practice earlier in the week, so Friday's time was precious. And there still wasn't enough of it, as the six-hour session was cut in half by midafternoon showers. About two hours of green-flag time were completed.

But in that time, the expected pole contenders showed their strength, with the top six spots on the day's speed chart claimed by the series' three power teams. Scott Dixon of Ganassi was first at 226.968 mph, followed by AGR teammates Marco Andretti at 226.710 mph and Tony Kanaan at 226.688 mph. Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe was the fourth car above 226, at 226.143 mph. Then came AGR rookie Hideki Mutoh at 225.990 mph and Ganassi's Dan Wheldon at 225.674.

Those were draft-aided speeds, as it was impossible to run alone on the 2.5-mile oval with so much traffic.

"It was kind of a towfest," said Dixon, runner-up in last year's 500. "It was very hard to get clear laps. I maybe had a couple of clear laps the whole day today, and I think we could see everybody's speed fell off when they were by themselves."

Tomorrow the solo speeds will be evident in Indy's notoriously nerve-racking four-lap qualifying format. Briscoe, Dixon and Andretti all drew positions in the first nine of the qualification order, so they likely will post the numbers to beat.

Then, it's game on. Indy's qualifying always has a cat-and-mouse factor to it, with teams pulling perfectly good efforts off the board to take another shot at the top. They are allowed as many as three chances each day of qualifying.

"We've always focused on [qualifying]. We've taken a lot of risk," said Team Penske owner Roger Penske, who has claimed 14 Indy poles. "We've pulled out guys when they had good times, you know, we could be a hero or it could be a dog. It's a high-risk ballgame."

The risk is greater with so many other cars poised to take their shot. On the combined speed chart from both practices this week, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Buddy Rice is 11th at 224.170 mph. A half-dozen other cars are less than 1 mph away from that number and would dearly love to be secure for the show on the first day of qualifying, and they'll be just as likely to queue up again for another qualifying shot late in the day as a big three team might be for another pole run.

"Out of the box today, I ran 223.5 on older tires. We put on new Firestones and I was on a hot lap, but [Rahal Letterman Racing's] Ryan Hunter-Reay had a problem and slowed right in front of me. So I didn't get the flying lap I wanted, but I felt like I was at least in 224-plus range," said Townsend Bell, 16th on the combined speed chart for D&R. "It would be great to get in the field on the first day of qualifying."

When the clock strikes 6 p.m. Saturday, it's tough luck if you're in line waiting to try again, as evidenced by Danica Patrick last year.

"This year is going to be such a mess," Dixon said. "The problem isn't going to be us running for the pole; the problem for our teams and people in our same situation are the 20 or 22 more cars running for the 11th spot. They're going to clog up the lines."

As they probably should -- Sunday's forecast is for more rain.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Two-Andretti Field Unlikely

John Andretti

J. Andretti

John Andretti -- a seven-time Indy 500 starter, including last year --is poking around Gasoline Alley looking for a ride but isn't optimistic about his chances of joining cousin Marco Andretti on the track.

For drivers like him seeking a one-off opportunity, the new unified IndyCar Series hasn't opened more doors for the 500.

"With everything good that happens, there's always something with a little bit of a flip side," said Andretti, a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver with Front Row Motorsports. "I think with reunification, there's not an engine shortage, there's not a tire shortage, there's a car shortage now. So people are struggling to get extra efforts together. The people that already have them already have them locked in.

"It's frustrating. Right now, my enthusiasm is pretty low because I really want to be here, and I should have just went to Darlington (S.C., site of this weekend's Cup race), to be honest with you."

He said that second-week opportunities, which in previous years have opened up for some veterans seeking work, don't appear promising, but he'll still be looking.

Changes In The Landscape

Helio Castroneves

Castroneves

Longtime Brickyard fans will notice changes inside Turn 1 at the southwest corner of the track. Gone are grandstands and a spectator mound, replaced by a new part of the Indy road course. MotoGP will run for the first time at Indy in September.

Of course, when you're driving the circuit at 225 mph, it's not exactly noticeable.

"For me, Turn 1 is too fast, so I don't have time to look around," two-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves said with a smile. "I'm focusing on that, hold my breath and sometimes I close one eye."

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