By Jeff Olson
Helio Castroneves’ pole position for the 93rd Indianapolis 500 was in question only once late Saturday afternoon, threatened by Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe.
When Briscoe failed to top Castroneves’ four-lap average of 224.864 mph, the Brazilian celebrated the third pole of his career and the 14th for Roger Penske’s race team.
“This place is magic, man,” Castroneves said. “It’s just amazing. Ryan and I were really strong. A couple of times I thought it was going to be tough. When we were trying to decide if he was going to try to beat me, I was like, ‘Don’t make me make this decision. Don’t go back out there.’”
Briscoe, already in second place on the starting grid, withdrew his time and took the No. 6 Penske Dallara-Honda back on track with just minutes remaining in the windy, wild six-hour session. He turned four laps at an average of 224.083 mph, not enough to top Castroneves but enough to retain second place.
“It was pretty hairy out there,” Briscoe said. “As trimmed out as you are, you really feel the wind. Every corner feels different. You have to get out there fast on the out lap, and your tires are cold so you’re sliding around. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s pretty hard work out there.”
Dario Franchitti will start third after his four-lap average of 224.010 mph from earlier in the day held up for a front-row spot. Graham Rahal will start fourth after improving his position with a late attempt. Scott Dixon, last year’s winner, waited until the final hour but couldn’t get the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Dallara-Honda on the front row, while Tony Kanaan took a pieced-together “Frankencar” back on track after being scratched for a weight violation and nailed down sixth position with a better time than he recorded when the car was too light.
“We’re not winning a beauty contest,” Kanaan joked, noting the car made up of a tub from one of teammate Hideki Mutoh’s car and wings from Kanaan’s car.
Saturday’s session determined only the first 11 starting positions for the 33-car field. Positions 12 though 22 will be determined Sunday with another six-hour session, with the final 11 positions determined the following weekend.
Alex Lloyd’s last-second run secured the 11th and final position and bumped Mutoh, off the grid. Lloyd’s car, a combined entry of Chip Ganassi and Sam Schmidt, gave Ganassi three cars in the first four rows.
“We put together a completely different car,” Lloyd said after he got out of his car at the end of the session. “That was our first run, basically. It felt really good to me. We could have taken more downforce off and picked up more speed. I felt ready even though it was getting quite late.”
Perhaps the best story of the day – though not unexpected – was Rahal’s performance in the No. 02 Newman/Haas/Lanigan car. The team, which struggled early last year in its introduction to the IndyCar Series and its equipment, has improved rapidly on ovals since late last season.
“On a day like this, just getting the car in the show is the main goal,” Rahal said. “Last year this wind would have made me pretty nervous, but this year I just went through the motions and got used to it. It’s great to have a run like this. It gives the whole team a lot of confidence.”
Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 winner who returns to the race after a year away in NASCAR, will start in the outside front-row position for the third time in his sixth Indy 500.
“We just didn’t quite have enough today – certainly not for Helio,” Franchitti said. “I thought maybe we had something for Ryan, but we caught a wind gust on the backstretch on one of those laps. We had some pretty interesting moments out there, but we couldn’t make it any faster.”
When the gun was fired to end the session, Castroneves was back, his lengthy tax trial behind him, and perhaps a third Indy 500 win ahead of him.
“Being here is already special,” Castroneves said. “Many times during the trial I thought about being here. That was my wish. To be here is proof that my faith didn’t let me down.”
Sunday’s second round begins at noon ET after two hours of practice in the morning.
POLE DAY RESULTS:
Pos Driver Team Speed
1. Helio Castroneves Penske 224.864mph
2. Ryan Briscoe Penske 224.083mph
3. Dario Franchitti Ganassi 224.010mph
4. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas/Lanigan 223.954mph
5. Scott Dixon Ganassi 223.867mph
6. Tony Kanaan Andretti Green 223.612mph
7. Mario Moraes KV 223.331mph
8. Marco Andretti Andretti Green 223.114mph
9. Will Power Penske 223.028mph
10. Danica Patrick Andretti Green 222.882mph
11. Alex Lloyd Schmidt/Ganassi 222.622mph