Dario Franchitti has had a tough time in 16 qualifying attempts during the 2005 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series season, but the 17th and final time the Scot qualified, he secured the Marlboro Pole Award, running 219.398mph on his initial lap to head the 21-car field in Sunday's season finale, the Toyota Indy 400.
The sixteenth driver to take qualifying laps, Franchitti had the benefit of rubber already being down on the always slick 2-mile California Speedway oval. He also had a bit more knowledge about the heavy wind blowing down the front straight, which affected everyone's run.
"The engineers guessed right and my engine was strong," Franchitti acknowledged. "We have been pretty quick in practice all season but have managed to get in wrong in qualifying all year long, but finally, here we are good in qualifying. We got the back of the car to stick and left nothing on the table. It felt great," he exulted.
Tomas Scheckter was the fourth driver in the qualifying queue, posting 218.902mph on his first lap. The South African then had to sit and wait, all the while believing his speed would never hold up to take pole.
After experiencing fuel pickup problems in the two practice sessions held earlier today, Scheckter's team was able to remedy the situation. "What we came with is what we had," Scheckter said as he shrugged his shoulders. "We didn't have time to work on qualifying today. I'm nearly in tears over Chevrolet leaving after this race and it would be awesome to bring them the final checkered flag."
Sam Hornish Jr. qualified just before Scheckter and came up with a lap of 218.602mph to gain third on the grid. Hornish was "pretty happy because we weren't expecting that much out of it. We knew we'd gain a little bit from practice but this was more than we thought we'd get." Hornish did state he shifted to fifth gear on his first lap and that may have hurt his speed over the run.
Hornish collected the year-end Marlboro Pole Award bonus for having the most poles (three) during the 17-race season. While tied with Bryan Herta and Scheckter in the number of pole positions, Hornish's overall standings in points gave him the $20,000 prize.
Danica Patrick again had a fine qualifying run to take fourth at 218.199mph, the 2005 Bombardier Rookie of the Year gaining her ninth top- five starting slot (including three pole position starts) in her first year of IndyCar Series competition.
Teammate and 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice starts fifth in his second start on the wide CA Speedway oval, logging 218.029mph on his second lap. Rice claimed he hadn't worked on simulation during practice and just "cleaned up the setup for qualifying. The main objective is to be part of the breakaway group; this is definitely a 'handling' place."
Helio Castroneves, who had won pole here the past two years, will start in sixth place (217.765mph), hoping that anomaly will give him a fence-climb by the time 200 laps are completed. "We made a calculated run with the way the wind changed. Our gears were perfect and I left nothing on the table. I think we planned pretty well," Castroneves admitted.
Newly crowned 2005 IRL champion Dan Wheldon thought his car "wasn't too bad but not particularly quick" after running217.702mph, good for seventh on the grid. "It pisses me off that we're not faster in qualifying but it sure was more difficult to get it right with the wind. We were good on gearing," Wheldon noted.
Bryan Herta's first lap of 217.408mph notched eighth grid slot and that was "as fast as it would go. We put Dario's setup on the car and it felt good, but it sure didn't make big numbers," he explained.
Scott Sharp lines up ninth (217.261mph) and the veteran said his "gears were right on. This is the best we've run all weekend and we've got a new setup for this race. The guys have been working hard, even though it is the end of the season and I intend to keep the hammer down tomorrow and hang in there."
Tony Kanaan is the final driver in the top ten after the 2004 champ hit 217.170mph as the final driver in line for timed laps. Kanaan acknowledged his team didn't work at all on qualifying and isn't worried about starting outside the fifth row.
Tomas Enge, who ran this race for Patrick Racing (at the blunt end of the grid) starts 11th; he thought his qualifying effort was "not bad but not perfect." Kosuke Matsuura lines up 12th, followed by Vitor Meira, whose team "worked on race setup all during practice; that was our focus. We didn't leave anything on the table," Meira said.
Jaques Lazier, who lives close enough to the track to go home tonight and sleep in his own bed, will line up 14th. Lazier had an engine problem in the morning that "put us back." Teammate Scott Dixon - both Target cars are painted pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month - was the first driver to take timed laps and starts 15th.
Patrick Carpentier lines up 16th, the French Canadian acknowledging he "wasn't expecting more than that." Because this was originally intended to be a three-day meeting, it was possible to change the engine on Carpentier's car and he feels confident for tomorrow's race. Teammate Alex Barron is 17th and thought his lap went "pretty good. The car was well balanced and better than it was in practice."
Making his final regular season IndyCar start, A.J. Foyt IV starts 18th after having difficulties getting his car into fifth gear. Jimmy Kite thought the run was good: "Every time we go out we get quicker. I'm pretty excited for Sunday." He lines up 19th. Roger Yasukawa holds 20th grid slot, followed by Ed Carpenter.
2004 Menards Infiniti Pro Series champ Thiago Medeiros intended to make his first IndyCar Series start tomorrow, but a practice shunt destroyed the car and his Dreyer & Reinbold team said they had no replacement for him, so the field will be 21-strong on Sunday.
Although it's been bone dry and beautiful all day long here in Fontana, there are clouds coming in and a change in weather is expected for tomorrow. Will there be rain? A 30 percent chance of showers has been predicted, but the Indy car drivers are hoping it will stay away until after the race is done.
Pole man Franchitti is hoping for something to match his upbeat attitude after today's qualifying session. The eighth different polesitter in 17 races, Franchitti knows the California Speedway track well: "This track is more of a mental challenge than physical and 400 miles can be challenging. I'm looking forward to the race tomorrow."
The Toyota Indy 400 airs live on ESPN, beginning at 3:30PM EDT.