IRL: Penske boys atop the Peak

Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. sure have the short ovals on the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series schedule covered. The duo secured their third straight short oval front row starts on this blustery afternoon, as conditions changed ...

Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. sure have the short ovals on the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series schedule covered. The duo secured their third straight short oval front row starts on this blustery afternoon, as conditions changed dramatically from the start of practice into qualifying.

Castroneves pipped Hornish to take the Marlboro Pole Award for Sunday's Honda Indy 225 on the one-mile Pikes Peak International Raceway oval, the Brazilian logging a quick second lap of 175.423mph that Hornish, qualifying later just couldn't beat, ending up at 175.404mph. Castroneves secured his first pole of the season and the 17th of his Indy car career.

It was a crazy day of practice and qualifying, starting with sunny and mild skies and ending with the increasing threat of stormy weather. At the start of the second session, the ambient temperature was 88 degrees; by the time qualifying rolled around, the temps had fallen by more than 15 degrees and the wind had changed by 180 degrees, from south to north.

Castroneves and Hornish were among the few to venture out toward the end of the second practice session, trying to get a feel for which direction the weather was going. Their Marlboro Team Penske engineers made the right call. "These short ovals combine a lot of things," Castroneves allowed. "You have to look at setup and conditions and, yeah, this pole feels awesome.

"We took a chance and made the right choices after practice. I'd say we made a calculated guess on the gears this afternoon," Castroneves continued. "The wind here is always a factor and it's difficult to get the car handling well on this short track."

It was enough to cause every engineering staff assigned to the 22 entries for this 13th race on the 17-event calendar to scratch their heads and make guesses on downforce and gearing. Some guessed well; others did not.

Hornish "knew what we could do with the wind, but it picked up a bit and we were a little off on our gearing. We feel like we know what needs to be done at these handling tracks, but you can really come from anywhere to win at a mile oval." While he didn't know qualifying would turn out as it did, Hornish joined Castroneves in testing the conditions at the end of practice.

"I've never seen changes like this on a race weekend; we normally have this kind of thing in testing. The race setup here is all about downforce but you never really know about the weather and you've got to make the right changes," Hornish continued. "I knew it would be tough to beat Helio but I didn't know we'd be that close. I had to slide down in my car as much as I could to get out of the wind," he laughed.

Bryan Herta secured third on the grid with his lap of 175.242mph, set midway through the session. "We got the gears right," Herta confirmed, "but we were quicker on the first lap. I tried to shorten the line in turn 2 and ended up having to lift on my second lap. The car's been good all weekend but it's sure tough to get it right, especially the gears and balance on this track and in these conditions," he said.

Teammate Dario Franchitti, defending race winner at Pikes Peak starts fourth with his lap of 174.747mph, the sixth driver in the qualifying line. "Some of the other guys will be quicker," he predicted but at least the car is better than it was this morning. We missed on the gears with these pretty strong winds. Out of turn 2," Franchitti said, "we were almost facing the wall!"

Danica Patrick was fastest in the combined practice listings and, quite frankly was hoping that rain would give her a second consecutive pole, but it never came and she will start fifth after lapping this oval at 174.389mph. "We're weren't perfect on the gears but we just used the information we had and the car was strong." While the wind might not have been much of a factor in her qualifying attempt, Patrick doesn't "know how much the car will change with the wind in race settings," as she learns the nuances of Indy car racing.

Reigning IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan starts sixth (174.368mph) and stated his team had to "guess on everything. We didn't want to risk everything today and qualifying hasn't really been my strength this year. The wind was nasty and I'm not really happy with the lap, but I think I've got a good race car."

Tomas Enge's return from back injury continues to go well and the Czech feels stronger every time he's in his race car, evident when he secured seventh grid spot this afternoon at 174.316mph. "Every time it's better and we're not rushing the speed. It's been a step-by-step approach for us all day. This is not an easy track, especially for me since it's my first time here," he explained.

Teammate Tomas Scheckter, the final driver to turn timed laps starts eighth with his 173.937mph lap in hand. Scheckter was happy with his run: "I did everything I could with our car, but we ran out of gears a bit - and I even ran the shortest line possible. Still it's a good run for us and puts us solidly in the top 10. If you've ever seen the movie Day After Tomorrow, that's what the weather around here seems like," Scheckter joked.

Vitor Meira was the second driver in line to qualify and earned ninth with his second lap of 173.830mph. "I was flat on the throttle and it felt pretty good. The wind changed directions and that was a little unusual but overall we had a strong run. The hardest thing for us was being proactive and making the proper changes for these conditions. Now we'll have to do the same thing for the race - and the race will be much different."

Kentucky winner Scott Sharp rounds out the top 10 with his lap of 173.697mph. "If I had to qualifying over, I don't think I'd change a thing. We're really happy with the car but we hoped we could sneak another half-a-tenth out of it. This was our quickest time of the day and some guys slowed down. Once you get 30 or 40 laps into the race, it's not going to matter if you were one or two spots ahead or back in qualifying anyway."

Dan Wheldon was in the first group to qualify and will start 11th, while Buddy Rice holds 12th on the grid. Target teammates Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe share the seventh row while Roger Yasukawa and Kosuke Matsuura line up on row 8.

The tongue-tying combination of Patrick Carpentier and Ed Carpenter hold down row 9, while A.J. Foyt IV and Alex Barron have the tenth row to themselves. Jimmy Kite starts 21st and Jaques Lazier, who crashed in morning practice and didn't make a qualifying attempt is the final car to start this 225-lap contest.

While the storm fronts avoided this pocket of land south of Colorado Springs, the conditions were so haphazard that nobody really knows what to expect for tomorrow's 1:45PM MDT start. The Honda Indy 225 takes the green flags at that time and airs live beginning at 3:30PM EDT on ABC.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Tomas Enge , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , A.J. Foyt IV , Jimmy Kite , Patrick Carpentier , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Alex Barron , Dan Wheldon , Roger Yasukawa , Buddy Rice , Kosuke Matsuura , Sam Hornish Jr. , Danica Patrick , Ed Carpenter , Jaques Lazier , Vitor Meira
Teams Team Penske