Alex Tagliani was fastest in the first section of Indianapolis 500 qualifying, and may end up with a sensational pole position for underdog squad Sam Schmidt Motorsports if rain forces the cancellation of the "Fast Nine" pole shootout this afternoon.
Under this year's format, the first five hours of Pole Day qualifying sets positions 10 to 24 on the grid, and decides the identity of the nine drivers who will go through to fight for pole in the final session. Tagliani was one of the first drivers to run today and his 226.954mph average proved unbeatable all afternoon.
Ganassi's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti got closest and currently share the provisional front row, but usual big rival Penske has had a very tough day. Will Power was the top Penske runner but was only seventh, while Helio Castroneves' underwhelming first run was not sufficient to get him into the top group. He was preparing for another attempt to try and move up from his 16th place when the rain arrived with 23 minutes to go of the first part of qualifying. Ryan Briscoe fared worse still, struggling to get any speed out of his back-up car after his practice crash this morning, he did not make the top 24 today and will have to rely on tomorrow's Bump Day session.
While the big names floundered, smaller teams and one-off entrants starred. 2005 Indy winner Dan Wheldon was fourth for Bryan Herta Autosport, which is running with engineering assistance from Schmidt's team, while Townsend Bell was fifth in another Schmidt car.
Sarah Fisher Racing also had its finest day in IndyCar so far, as new driver Ed Carpenter went sixth quickest. Newman/Haas' Oriol Servia and Panther's one-off recruit Buddy Rice were the final drivers to make it to the pole shootout, should it go ahead.
Takuma Sato (KV), Vitor Meira (Foyt), JR Hildebrand (Panther) and James Hinchcliffe (Newman/Haas) were fastest among those who missed out.
After her horrific Thursday practice crash, Simona de Silvestro did a remarkable job to qualify 24th in HVM's less-developed back-up car, despite driving with burns to her hands following the accident.
In addition to Briscoe, other big names who will have to qualify on Bump Day include all four of Andretti Autosport's regular drivers, with John Andretti the only one of the team's entries to make it into the top 24 today – and even then only with a last-ditch second attempt just before the rain.
Paul Tracy is also facing a Bump Day run for the second year in a row, the Dreyer & Reinbold driver's initial speed being edged outside the top 24 as a host of other drivers went for second attempts.
Ho-Pin Tung was the only driver to crash during a qualifying run, spinning into the Turn 1 wall in his Schmidt/Dragon car. His Dragon Racing teammate Scott Speed, who has been off he pace in practice, chose not to make a qualifying attempt today.