The Indy Racing League and Indianapolis Motor Speedway garnered all the excitement and tension they were hoping for with today's MBNA Pole Day for the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
In the end Kanaan prevailed with a four-lap average of 227.566mph in his #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda/Firestone challenger. He was the third driver to take timed laps this afternoon and was near tears when he realized he had indeed secured the top spot.
"It was a long day. Michael [team co-owner Andretti] drew a low number and I had to wait until everyone else went. It was exciting for everyone and I was really excited the last 45 minutes; I think I have to check my heart," Kanaan laughed.
"The entire team helped a lot. We weren't really quick enough on Friday but we didn't panic. This morning the car felt good after a lot of little adjustments; this is a big relief for me." Kanaan's Andretti Green Racing team had made "a couple of adjustments to pick up more downforce so we'd have more grip around the track.
"I think," Kanaan admitted, "I pushed too hard too soon but I'm pleased with the run." Kanaan thought, both after his qualifying run and once the day was done that the new system worked well. "It makes it exciting."
With the luxury of owning MBNA Pole Position and the $100,000 that comes with the achievement, Kanaan and his team have the luxury of working on race preparation throughout the coming week. "We've had good momentum since last year. I was third here my first year, second last year and I feel very good about my chances in two weeks."
Sam Hornish Jr. needed two tries to secure the second grid spot this afternoon. He withdrew his #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota's initial run of 225.847mph to take a second try at pole, coming up short by 0.293mph with his four-lap average of 227.273mph.
Still experiencing pain in his right knee after a rollover Friday afternoon, Hornish felt the challenge of trying another time was worth it. "I knew we had a good car and we just missed a little bit on the first run, gearing or whatever it happened to be." In taking the chance he considered "it was a lot of reward that we had to get and not much as far as risk. I'm really happy to be where we're at."
Scott Sharp set the benchmark for all qualifiers as the initial driver to take timed laps shortly after the noon hour. The veteran, who owned Pole here in 2001 put out a four-lap average of 227.156mph in his #8 Delphi /Fernandez Panoz/Honda to occupy the outside of the front row.
"I'm ecstatic," said Sharp. "For us to come back out in qualifying trim this morning and post our best time of the month and then back it up, well, that is peaking at the right time. I know this is a team that focuses much more on the race than qualifying. To end up at the front is tremendous and now it's just a matter of letting the team do what they do best and me staying out of trouble and being there for the final run to the flag."
Although it's not where she wanted or expected to be, Danica Patrick will start her first Indianapolis 500 from inside the second row. The 23-year- old speedster had quite a moment on her first lap that resulted in a speed well under her capabilities but she did not panic and ended up with an average of 227.004mph for her ten-mile run.
"I am a little disappointed," Patrick revealed, "in that I feel I had a car capable of winning the pole. I had some severe oversteer and almost spun it on the first lap and that really hurt my qualifying average. I was able to make up a lot of ground, but it's frustrating because we were almost there" in her #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda.
Helio Castroneves, too, made two attempts with the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota, withdrawing his speed of 227.077mph set earlier in the afternoon to try and unseat his lifelong competitor Kanaan. It didn't work and Castroneves settled for 226.927mph and a slot in the middle of Row 2.
Always the optimist Castroneves related, "It's not the position you start, it's the position you finish this race that matters. Obviously I'm not happy with the result but at least I can sleep nice tonight. I had to try. Now that's over and we're going to focus on the real deal."
Castroneves' drama had nothing on Dario Franchitti's. The Scot waved off his first attempt with the #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda early in the afternoon and came back to try again. After setting a four-lap average of 226.475mph his AGR brain trust elected to withdraw Franchitti's time and have him try a third time.
It was the charm as Dario put up four laps at an average of 226.873mph to gain his place outside the second row. "Three tries were absolutely worth it. This morning the car was very quick and we expected to be right up there. This wasn't a great improvement but we did move up one spot and really, that was all the car had. I went flat out," Franchitti explained.
"Pretty stressful, you hang out on the edge during qualifying. To do that for two and a half times, I'm ready for bed tonight! I think it's good for the fans. It's exciting."
Vitor Meira will start the 200-lap race in seventh spot May 29th after pushing his #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda to an average of 226.848mph. Moved from his original place in line because, he had "a very slight leak which got a touch worse during the attempt. We didn't want to take any chances here" and elected to check out all systems.
Kosuke Matsuura earned the eighth starting spot with his #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz/Honda with a four-lap tour of the 2.5-mile oval at 226.397mph. "This is what we were expecting, which is not bad," the 2004 Bombardier Rookie of the Year explained.
Buddy Lazier starts ninth with the #95 Byrd Brothers/Panther Dallara/Chevrolet and is the best of the Bow-Tie Brigade. The 1996 Indy 500 winner did have a moment when "the wind caught me once in turn 2. For the conditions it was a good run and I hate to get greedy but I wanted a little bit more" than the 226.353mph average Lazier posted.
Rookie Tomas Enge, whose ribs are still a bit sore from his accident at Twin Ring Motegi starts tenth in his first Indy 500, powering the #2 RockStar Dallara/Chevy to four laps averaging 226.107mph. The Czech said his team "found some small things to improve on the car this morning. Overall I'm happy with the run and happy for the guys."
Tomas Scheckter, who was quickest in Fast Friday practice, will start 11th in the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet. After his run at 226.031mph Scheckter admitted, "I'm not satisfied. I expected a little bit more but we'll take what we can get."
The pressure of needing to qualify today or not race on May 29th didn't seem to faze Bruno Junqueira, who will start 12th in the Memorial Day Classic. Lapping the Brickyard oval at 225.704mph in his #36 Team Centrix Panoz/Honda Junqueira thought he ran "four very consistent laps and got the most out of the car that we could. I was flat all the way around."
Scott Dixon waved off his first attempt with a very loose #9T Target Panoz/Toyota, then came back in the late afternoon to put down four solid laps at 225.215mph. The Kiwi, who took the 2003 IRL title said his team "took a bit of the front grip out of the car just to make sure we could make a good run. It was a little bit too far and we had quite a bit of understeer."
Adrian Fernandez, who won three of the final five 2004 IndyCar Series contests is making a one-off run for the title at Indy this year with a #5 Investment Properties of America Panoz/Honda with Mo Nunn Racing's crew helping the effort. The Mexican forewent his first attempt to run later in the day and when he did his four laps said, "I think it went better than we'd thought. I didn't think we'd get that speed (225.120mph) so we're satisfied."
Sebastien Bourdais was disappointed with his first qualifying run at Indy but relieved to have put his #37 Team Centrix Panoz/Honda safely in the show. Having run faster than his four-lap average of 224.955mph this morning, the 2004 Champ Car World Series champion was "flat all the way around. We said we were going to come here and work on the race setup and we did that and got into the race, but it would have been great to work on our qualifying setup as well. We made the car better each day."
Newman Haas Racing Team Centrix teammates Bourdais and Junqueira will be racing in Monterrey Mexico this coming weekend as part of their regular gigs with the Champ Car World Series.
This is Dan Wheldon's third opportunity to tame the famed Indy oval but he'll have to do so from 16th on the grid after lapping the Speedway at 224.308mph in his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda. Wheldon, who won three of the first four 2005 IndyCar Series races admitted, "Since the start of the month we just lost a lot of speed and we have no idea why. It's extremely disappointing."
Also in his third Indy 500, Roger Yasukawa lines up 17th with his four laps at 224.131mph in the #24 Racing for Kids Dallara/Honda. "Now we can focus on getting a good setup for the race. Indy is definitely my favorite track" after finishing tenth his first two times here.
Bryan Herta, the fourth member of the Andretti Green Racing juggernaut produced a four-lap average of 223.972mph in the #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda. Disappointed not to "get the speed we were hoping for, we'll probably have to evaluate what we're going to do with setups for the race."
After clouting the Turn 2 wall a couple of days ago it would be natural for Darren Manning to be a bit reticent about attacking the tough Indy oval. Still, he took the #10 Target Panoz/Toyota to four laps at 223.943mph as the fourth driver in the qualifying line. The Briton found the chilly, cloudy and windy weather "pretty good conditions and pretty stable."
Richie Hearn was visibly disappointed with his four laps at 222.707mph, particularly after practicing his #70 Meijer/Coca-Cola Panoz/Chevrolet much quicker in the final morning practice. "I don't know where the speed went. The car handled well but we're just not fast by ourselves and that's disappointing."
Despite having minimal practice time since Rookie Orientation, Jeff Bucknum performed four solid laps and earned the 21st best speed of 221.521mph. The rookie driver of Dreyer & Reinbold's #44 Investment Properties of America Dallara/Honda called his results, "Super satisfying. This has been nerve-wracking for me. I didn't realize how close we were on time (as the final driver to take timed laps) so this is rewarding."
Alex Barron was the first driver bumped from the field when his initial average of 219.958mph in the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota failed to hold up. As the 28th of 32 drivers to complete a qualifying run shortly after 5:30 this evening, Barron put up a stout quartet at 221.053mph to place his teammate Patrick Carpentier (#83) on the bubble.
Barron admitted, "It was a long day, putting the suit on, off and on again, but we came back and got some things changed. We're happy to be in the lineup at this point; it's good for the guys because we've been working very hard all week. We still need to figure out how to get the speed with the top guys," Barron said.
French Canadian Carpentier's laps at 219.999mph in the #83 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota didn't stand up to the barrage of quicker drivers and the Indy rookie will have to try again next Saturday to make his way into the field of 33. "It was disappointing we got bumped but now we're going to start working on race setup. We know we're going to get in so we just need to look ahead" after being removed from the field at 5:44PM by Franchitti.
Jaques Lazier was the final driver bumped from the field of 22 this evening when Bucknum completed his run. Driving start-up Playa Del Racing's #21 Panoz/Toyota, Lazier made a late attempt at 220.034mph but it wasn't good enough. The veteran, looking at the big picture figures "we'll start one row back, which doesn't hurt us too bad."
There are still some viable contenders for the remaining 11 positions in the field for the 89th Indy 500 when qualifying begins anew next Saturday, May 21st. 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice will try to put his #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, as will rookie Ryan Briscoe, caught out by a gust of wind on his second qualifying lap this afternoon.
Briscoe connected with the Turn 1 wall and nearly flipped his #33 Target/Pioneer Panoz/Toyota. He practiced later in the afternoon but did not make a second attempt. Ed Carpenter tried to qualify twice with his #20 Vision Racing Dallara/Toyota but couldn't get up to speed either time; teammate Jeff Ward never did make a qualifying attempt.
Neither of the Foyt entries, A.J. Foyt IV or Larry Foyt made qualifying attempts today, nor did Marty Roth. With rookie Paul Dana out for the month with fractures of both his T7 and T8 vertebrae, Ethanol/Hemelgarn Racing is expected to announce a replacement driver in the next day or so to fill that seat.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be very quiet for the next two days but practice for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will restart on Wednesday and the final two days of qualifying are set for next weekend.
Indy Racing League president and COO Brian Barnhart was pleased with the way MBNA Pole Day transpired. "It [the new qualifying structure] has created a situation that is exactly what we were anticipating. The strategy and drama and excitement, I thought, was exactly what we were hoping for and were anticipating."