He had to beat a girl to do it, but Sam Hornish earned his fourth career pole position this afternoon during qualifying for Saturday's third annual Bridgestone Indy Japan 300.
Speeds were expected to be in the 204 mph range but high temperatures caused problems at the head of the qualifying line. It wasn't until clouds moved into the area that speeds began to climb.
"The cloud cover came by and the temperatures cooled down, so that definitely helped us," Hornish revealed.
When Bryan Herta, who was first in the qualifying line, recorded a lap at 200.154 mph, expectations regarding laps in the 204 mph range dropped considerably. Herta ran 203 mph in practice earlier today, tenth quickest, but will start the race 15th.
As qualifying progressed a large cloud covering cooled the speedway, allowing speeds to creep back towards those set during practice. With conditions improving Danica Patrick stunned the crowd by jumping to the top of the speed chart with a lap at 204.502 mph, the 12th driver in the qualifying line.
The Twin Ring Motegi ova has agreed with Scott Sharp as his most recent IndyCar Series victory came at this track in 2003. Sharp's career has been boosted by his recent move to Fernandez Racing and a switch to Honda power. Sharp will start on the inside of the second row after qualifying at 204.455 mph.
"I am just really excited. We worked on the car a lot yesterday and felt like we needed a little bit more, especially for qualifying. The engineering staff worked hard overnight and came up with some great changes. We were good this morning, and took even another step forward for qualifying. You just have to love it when a plan comes together like that."
After setting the fastest lap on Thursday, Helio Castroneves was considered a top contender for the pole. After recording a lap at 204.447 mph in the heat, Castroneves enjoyed a strong chance of staying atop the speed chart. Despite the Brazilian's popularity with the Japanese fans, the crowd cheered when Danica Patrick knocked him from the top spot.
Dan Wheldon, who won at Motegi last year, giving Honda their first victory at their home track, led the Andretti Green Racing contingent with a lap at 204.227 mph. He will start fifth. "It's been a funny weekend for the Klein Tools/Jim Beam team. We had a problem yesterday in the morning session, and we had a problem in the first session today. But, having Honda power I'm confident that we can make up for a lot, and I'm pleased with where we are."
Wheldon's teammates, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta will start, eighth, tenth and 15th, respectively.
Franchitti said the balance of his car was upset by the change in track temperatures. "The temperature warmed up since this morning and that changed the track as well as the balance of the ArcaEx car. We'll use the warmup to get the car set up properly and see how we do come race time. I'm disappointed in our qualifying effort but confident that we'll have a good race car."
Franchitti was fastest in the final practice session.
Tomas Scheckter will start sixth followed by Patrick's Rahal Letterman teammate Vitor Meira. Buddy Rice, winner of the 2004 Indianapolis 500, has been struggling this season and will start 11th.
"Usually, you would like to qualify as late as possible," said Meira. "There is better grip. But if the car is good, it doesn't really matter when you go out. The Panoz has good stability right now, but I think it will be even better in the race.
Tomas Enge hit the turn four wall during qualifying and did not set a time. Enge had yet to take the green flag starting his qualifying run when he lost rear grip, spun the car 180 degrees with the left side of the car making hard contact with the SAFER barrier in turn four.
Enge was transported by air to Dokkyo University Medical Center for examination. X-rays proved negative and he was released. His status will be reviewed before IRL physicians clear the Czech rookie to drive.
In the final practice session A. J. Foyt IV was involved in a single car incident spinning in turn four before making contact with the SAFER barrier. Foyt was not injured.