CHAMPCAR/CART: Road America: Friday qualifying report

ROOKIE DAN CLARKE USES TIMELY TIRE CHANGE TO SNARE FIRST-DAY POLE AT CHAMP CAR GRAND PRIX OF ROAD AMERICA ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (September 22, 2006) -- Dan Clarke ( ...

ROOKIE DAN CLARKE USES TIMELY TIRE CHANGE TO SNARE FIRST-DAY POLE AT CHAMP CAR GRAND PRIX OF ROAD AMERICA

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (September 22, 2006) -- Dan Clarke (#14 CTE Racing -- HVM Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) earned his racing stripes running in the British Isles and on the tracks of Europe, where racing in the rain is an common part of a driver's upbringing.

But on a rainy Friday in Elkhart Lake, Clarke's ability in drying conditions paid more dividends than his wet-weather prowess, as the CTE Racing -- HVM driver used a timely change of his Bridgestone Potenzas to help him lead first-round qualifying for this weekend's Champ Car Grand Prix of Road America.

Clarke, along with Charles Zwolsman (#34 Mi-Jack/Conquest Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), decided that the 4.048-mile Road America track had dried sufficiently after day-long rains to allow him to try a few laps on the Bridgestone racing slicks, discarding the grooved wet-weather tires that the rest of the field were still using to navigate the 14-turn course. The racing slicks generally will yield much quicker times than the wet-weather shoes, but are far trickier to handle if the track has even the slightest bit of moisture on it.

The gamble paid off handsomely for both drivers as they finished first and second respectively in the first round of qualifying, with Clarke posting a best time of 1:55.123 (126.585 mph) to lead the session. The run allowed the British rookie to lead a Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford qualifying session for the first time in his young career, a result that also guarantees him a front-row starting spot for Sunday's race -- the first of his nascent Champ Car career.

Zwolsman's late dash left him second on the day after a best time of 1:55.599 (126.063 mph), giving the 2005 Champ Car Atlantic champion the best qualifying result of his first year in the series. Zwolsman, who is currently riding a career-high streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes, ran his best time on his 12th and final lap of the Elkhart Lake circuit, and while he was just short of Clarke's provisional pole time, he has still nearly two full seconds clear of the rest of the field.

The move dashed the hopes of 2004 Road America champion Alex Tagliani (#15 Aussie Vineyards Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who had led the majority of the session while everyone was on the wet-weather Bridgestones. Riding a streak of three consecutive podium finishes at Road America, Tagliani was the first driver this weekend to run a lap in less than two minutes, but at the end of the day had to settle for the third spot, posting a time of 1:57.517 (124.006 mph).

Tagliani led most of the session, swapping the lead only briefly with 2001 and 2003 Road America winner Bruno Junqueira (#2 Hole In The Wall Camps Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) before taking it back on his seventh lap. But as Tagliani was starting to get his wet-weather strategy working, Zwolsman and Clarke were taking their first tentative steps on track with the slick tires. Zwolsman was the first to make it pay off, vaulting to the top on his eighth lap. Tagliani came right back and reclaimed the point, only to see Clarke obliterate Tagliani's top time on his next trip, setting the stage for the surprising final result.

The three drivers that are still battling for the 2006 series championship were all bunched directly behind Tagliani. A.J. Allmendinger (#7 Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Justin Wilson (#9 CDW Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) enter the weekend trailing two-time defending champion Sebastien Bourdais (#1 McDonald's Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) by 62 points with three races to go, but neither made up any ground on a cool, breezy Wisconsin Friday.

Allmendinger led the trio with a time of 1:58.507 (122.970 mph), putting him in the fourth spot ahead of fifth-placed Bourdais and his time of 1:58.945 (122.517 mph). Wilson was directly behind Bourdais, taking the sixth spot with a clocking of 1:59.076 (122.382 mph).

Rookie points leader Will Power (#5 Aussie Vineyards Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) came home in seventh on the day with the newly-adorned pink machine of Katherine Legge (#20 Bell Micro Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) taking the eighth position. Legge carries Ford's Warriors In Pink paint scheme this weekend and the British rookie took it to her best qualifying effort since June, scoring the eighth spot with a time of 1:59.388 (122.063 mph).

Andrew Ranger (#27 WalMart/Tide Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Junqueira rounded out the top 10 in today's first session. The final grid for Sunday's event will be determined on Saturday -- as will the winner of the Bridgestone Pole Award -- with final qualifying tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. Central Time. Fans can catch qualifying results on the official website of the Champ Car World Series, www.champcar.ws, and can also watch SPEED Channel's 30-minute highlight show from both Friday and Saturday qualifying at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Time Saturday night.

QUOTES FROM THE TOP THREE QUALFIERS:

Dan Clarke #14 CTE Racing --HVM Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone-- "It was just one of those sessions where you use your head. As a team, we just thought outside the box. The session started like for everybody else. We did good on wets in the first practice session. Then we went out there this afternoon. It looked dry, but it just wasn't. It was really greasy. It will be a little nerve-wracking starting on the front row Sunday, knowing that everyone is watching you, but I am looking forward to it."

Charles Zwolsman #34 Mi-Jack Conquest Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone -- "I saw some dry spots on the track. I thought, let's take a gamble and go out on the slicks, just stay out there, make sure I'm there on the last lap, put a good one in. That's what happened. It was a little slippery coming under the bridges where it hadn't fully dried, but it was OK."

Alex Tagliani #15 Aussie Vineyards Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone-- "I think the most important thing is that the car is really quick. I think the team is doing a great job, considering that we didn't come here for testing. We came here pretty green. The car was good this morning with very few laps. Again, it was good this afternoon. I think the balance was a little bit too much understeer for this afternoon, especially when the track starts drying."

NOTEWORTHY

Dan Clarke is the first rookie to lead a Champ Car qualifying session this season, and is the first rookie to lead a qualifying session since Sebastien Bourdais headed qualifying in Surfers Paradise in 2003.

Dan Clarke earned a front-row starting spot for Sunday's race by leading today's qualifying, marking the first time that a CTE Racing -- HVM machine will start on the front row since Ryan Hunter-Reay started second at Road America in 2004.

Former European F3000 driver Juan Caceres (#19 Sonny's Bar-B-Q Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) made his debut with Dale Coyne Racing today, taking over for Mario Dominguez (#8 Pemex/Rocketsports Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who moved to Rocketsports for the remainder of the season. The Uruguayan driver turned a best lap of 2:03.690 (117.817 mph) and was 17th in the field.

Clarke's result earned him a championship point, giving him 148 on the year and moving him into a three-way tie for 10th in the championship standings. He moves to within 19 points of Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year points leader Will Power with today's performance.

-credit: ccws

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