Alex Tagliani and Sam Schmidt Motorsports earned a sensational pole position for the 100th Indianapolis 500 as they proved their practice and early qualifying form was no fluke in the final "Fast Nine" pole shootout.
Despite suspecting that the likes of Ganassi and Penske would be able to raise their game for the decisive session – as had been the case 12 months ago when he had also led the first part of qualifying – Tagliani proved up to the challenge this time with a four-lap run averaging 227.472mph to secure the pole – a huge boost for his No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Sam Schmidt Motorsports squad, which raced last year as FAZZT.
"I think I'll be pinching myself until I go to bed," said Tagliani, who is the first Canadian to win an Indy 500 pole. "It was the worst conditions that we've had this week, so it was not easy. There's 11- or 12-mph hour wind in Turn 2 and before (Turns) 3 and 4. The car requires a lot of changes, so it's tough to be consistent and probably very difficult to be on the edge.
"I would have loved to come out with a 227 average because I would have had a free dinner from my engineer. We're .05 from it, but it's OK."
[Tagliani will be answering questions next week for RACER.com readers; email your questions to AskTag@racer.com]
Ganassi's efforts were blunted by both its cars running low on fuel. Scott Dixon looked like he might have been slightly too quick for Tagliani to beat, but he lost speed on his final lap as the car ran dry exiting Turn 4, leaving Dixon second on the grid. His teammate Dario Franchitti, last year's Indy winner, was even worse affected, not even completing his qualifying run before his fuel ran out.
"With that wind gusting, it got really tricky in a couple of points, especially on that last lap in Turn 3 and 4. Pretty interesting," related Franchitti. "Glad that one's over! We always worry about weather and the wind and all that stuff, but during qualifying when you're sliding the car around at 225mph, you have got to get it right. It was a very busy run from my seat. I was definitely working harder than I've ever worked in any qualifying lap."
For a while, Oriol Servia looked like he might give Newman/Haas its first Indy 500 pole since 1987, as he held the provisional top spot until Tagliani and Dixon's late runs. The Spaniard completed the front row in third.
Sam Schmidt's excellent day continued with Tagliani's teammate Townsend Bell taking fourth, and Dan Wheldon's Schmidt-assisted Bryan Herta Autosport car qualifying sixth. They sandwich championship leader Will Power, as Penske's muted qualifying day continued with fifth on the grid for its only driver in the pole shootout. It is the first time this year Power has not started from the pole in an IndyCar race.
"My car was solid, honestly," said Power. "The winds put it on the nose a little bit in (Turn) 1 but we just weren't fast enough. I was wide open, but the car wasn't fast enough. I thought I had a pretty good car, but Tagliani is always fast."
Simona de Silvestro, who suffered burns to her hands in a crash 48 hours earlier, secured the final 24th-place grid slot. She admitted that he had harbored some doubts about returning to action so soon, but is now glad that she did.
"My body's shaking. I was pretty nervous out there," admitted the Swiss. "We didn't do many laps. I really have to thank Nuclear Clean Air Energy for the support they've given me. The team, too, they worked really hard to get the car back together. A day ago, I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back in the car. I was really freaked out about it. But I think I made the right decision to get back in, and the doctors have taken really good car of me.
"After the crash, I was like, 'I don't need this. This is too crazy. It's way too dangerous.' But, you know, after a while you're back to being a racecar driver and thinking, 'Nah, I can do this.' And you suck it up. This morning, I felt pretty good. Then I went to qualify and thought, 'Ah, I'm not too sure about that.' And especially when you're sitting (waiting to go qualify) and they're showing your crash on the screen. It's like, 'Really? Thanks.' But it's great with the crowd, too. They've really lifted me up yesterday and today. Because of them, I really want to do well here."
Silvestro said she's hopeful her injured hands will benefit from rest before race day.
"They're all right now. They're a little sore, because the skin is pretty tight," she said. We haven't really worked on them yet. We'll see if they want to do that tonight or wait until tomorrow. But they've taken really good care of me. It just looks really gross right now."
Three rookies, led by JR Hildebrand, and 49-year-old Davey Hamilton also are in. All four KV Racing Technology-Lotus cars are in, while four of the five Andretti Racing cars are temporarily out, as John Andretti was the only one of the group to make the cut.
For Helio Castroneves, who started from the pole the past two years and had the quickest time on "Fast Friday, his 16th was a big disappointment.
"The track definitely changed for us from yesterday to today; the same for everyone," Castroneves said. "The wind was a big factor. We went a little bit conservative this morning (in practice). We started pushing and it wasn't quite the way we expected. So we decided to go back like (Fast Friday) when we were very solid. But, all of a sudden, we were just 225.2. The gear wasn't pulling the speed we wanted. So, it's a big question mark. We took a chance to be a little bit more conservative and it didn't pay off."
2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice took an impressive seventh in his return to Indy with the Panther squad, ahead of Sarah Fisher Racing's Ed Carpenter, who had been an early dark horse for pole with some fast laps in practice.
The remaining grid positions will be set during Sunday's Bump Day qualifying. Leading drivers still trying to get into the race include Penske's Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi's Graham Rahal, Dreyer & Reinbold driver Paul Tracy and all four of Andretti Autosport's full-time entrants.
Pos Driver Team Speed
1. Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt 227.472mph
2. Scott Dixon Ganassi 227.340mph
3. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas 227.168mph
4. Townsend Bell Sam Schmidt 226.887mph
5. Will Power Penske 226.773mph
6. Dan Wheldon Herta 226.490mph
7. Buddy Rice Panther 225.786mph
8. Ed Carpenter Sarah Fisher 225.121mph
9. Dario Franchitti Ganassi Out of fuel
10. Takuma Sato KV 225.736mph
11. Vitor Meira Foyt 225.590mph
12. JR Hildebrand Panther 225.579mph
13. James Hinchcliffe Newman/Haas 225.572mph
14. Bertrand Baguette Rahal Letterman Lanigan 225.285mph
15. Davey Hamilton Dreyer & Reinbold 225.250mph
16. Helio Castroneves Penske 225.216mph
17. John Andretti Petty/Andretti 224.981mph
18. EJ Viso KV 224.732mph
19. Bruno Junqueira Foyt 224.691mph
20. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold 224.511mph
21. Jay Howard Rahal/Schmidt 224.483mph
22. Tomas Scheckter KV/SH 224.433mph
23. Tony Kanaan KV 224.417mph
24. Simona de Silvestro HVM 224.392mph
Yet to qualify:
Paul Tracy Dreyer & Reinbold 224.353mph
Charlie Kimball Ganassi 224.262mph
Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold 224.258mph
Ryan Briscoe Penske 224.134mph
Marco Andretti Andretti 224.074mph
Danica Patrick Andretti 223.831mph
Graham Rahal Ganassi 223.822mph
Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne 223.564mph
Pippa Mann Conquest 223.070mph
Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti 222.951mph
Raphael Matos AFS 222.786mph
Mike Conway Andretti 222.247mph
James Jakes Dale Coyne 221.846mph
Sebastian Saavedra Conquest 221.526mph
Ho-Pin Tung Schmidt/Dragon