IRL: Castroneves in catbird seat at Fontana

Helio Castroneves is in the catbird seat, leading the IndyCar Series point standings and starting from pole position for Sunday's 15th race in a 16-event campaign, the Toyota Indy 400. Posting a lap of 31.7521 seconds (226.757mph) around the ...

Helio Castroneves is in the catbird seat, leading the IndyCar Series point standings and starting from pole position for Sunday's 15th race in a 16-event campaign, the Toyota Indy 400. Posting a lap of 31.7521 seconds (226.757mph) around the two-mile California Speedway oval early in single car qualifying, Castroneves nabbed MBNA Pole Position in his #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota.

"Everything is going the way we planned right now and the team has worked so hard," Castroneves admitted. "Today I'm extremely happy. This track, unlike others doesn't necessarily get better as the day goes on. The wind can come up and everything changes. We took a little chance with some changes this morning and they worked for qualifying. I think the race will be very competitive. We'll probably have 10 cars fighting for the lead."

Castroneves had a difficult race at Chicagoland two weeks ago, finishing 20th and needed to start up front, he believed, to have a chance to widen his point lead over Scott Dixon. After qualifying, he said that "qualifying doesn't mean a lot, but we're right there, unlike the last race."

Kenny Brack earned outside front row slot in his #15 Pioneer/Miller Lite Dallara/Honda with a lap of 31.8190 seconds (226.280mph), set midway through the session. "Our cars have been good for qualifying this season and, for a race like this you need a good starting position. I got all the speed out of it this morning. We still have work to do to get the car more stable for the race," the Swede said.

Scott Dixon will shadow Castroneves when the 22-car field lines up for Sunday afternoon's race, posting a lap of 31.8275 seconds (226.219mph) in the #9 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota to take third on the grid. The Kiwi took his two timed laps right after Castroneves and found conditions "a little slippery out there. We picked up a little speed but also a bit of push. I think we've got a good race car; we've focused on that."

Rookie Dan Wheldon has been quick off the truck in his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda and the Brit landed P4 on the grid with a lap of 31.9014 seconds (225.695mph), following Dixon in the qualifications order. "Track position should play a big part in tomorrow's race," Wheldon said. "You have to put your car in the right position for the last 10-15 laps. There's no time to relax at this place and you have to focus all the time," he reminded himself. "I think the cars will change during the race."

Former IndyCar Series point leader Tony Kanaan's had qualifying problems over the past few races but he pulled the #11 Team 7-Eleven back into contention today with a fifth-place qualifying run. Posting a lap of 31.9719 seconds (225.198mph), Kanaan was the final driver to post timed laps and noted, "The team and Honda really stepped up the tempo and I'm happy.

"There are advantages and disadvantages to being the final car out. I knew it would get hotter and the wind would come up. We tested here and found some speed. I think it will be harder to pass here than at Michigan and a lot can happen at the back of the grid so I'm happy to start up front tomorrow."

Returning to action after a two-race hiatus, Vitor Meira starts sixth in the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet, leading the Bow-Tie brigade. "I have a comfortable car for the race tomorrow. We tried some stuff and it didn't work so we went back to our original settings. I can run high or low now and you've got to go with what you've got," he said with a smile after running 31.9940 seconds (225.042mph).

Tomorrow will be Tomas Scheckter's 23rd birthday, but the South African ace isn't happy about starting seventh in his #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota. After turning a lap of 32.0688 seconds (224.517mph), Scheckter remarked, "We've paid a lot more attention to the race car but we're moving around a lot out there and have a little bit of push."

Eighth on the grid belongs to Felipe Giaffone in the #21 Hollywood Panoz G Force/Toyota after the Brazilian lapped the two-mile oval at 32.1052 seconds (224.263mph). Unable to run a lot of laps on Friday after having handling and fuel system problems, Giaffone was "back on track today. We've had to concentrate on race setup, not qualifying, and I think we'll be okay."

Alex Barron had "a good qualifying setup" in the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy and took ninth with a lap of 32.1101 seconds (224.229mph). "Our test last week helped us but we still have some race set-up work to do. We won't really know where we stand until final practice," which is set for 4:45PM this afternoon, following the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Menards Infiniti Pro Series races.

Sam Hornish Jr. completes the top ten. Hornish was second to take timed laps this morning and took the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevy to a tour of 32.1302 seconds (224.088mph). "We basically worked on race setup Friday so we were behind a bit this morning (he was 17th in practice). I'd like to be a little bit quicker," he smiled, "but this track is so wide it really doesn't matter. It's going to be windy before the race is over and the car was good in windy conditions yesterday."

Tora Takagi lines up 11th in the #12 Pioneer Panoz G Force/Toyota and also found it "a little slippery out there." Disappointed championship contender Gil de Ferran starts 12th in the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Panoz G Force/Toyota, using the chassis he entrusted to win the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Greg Ray has a brand new #13 TrimSpa Special Panoz G Force/Honda. "We were better today than yesterday. We still need to sort the car out as it's kind of numb and tight right now with only 1-150 miles on it." He starts 13th.

Al Unser Jr. starts 15th in the #31 Corteco Dallara/Toyota and thinks his car is "a little better but there's still work to do. That last half-hour today is going to be really important." Roger Yasukawa, so fast yesterday in afternoon practice mustered 16th grid spot in the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Dallara/Honda and said, "We were geared too short. We just didn't anticipate the heat."

Rookie Ed Carpenter makes his second IndyCar Series start tomorrow in the #18 PDM Racing Dallara/Chevrolet from 17th on the grid. "I think we've got a good car for the race. You pull a lot more Gs in this type of car and for me, I'll just have to race the car I'm given." Sarah Fisher starts 18th in the #23 GMAC/AOL Dallara/Chevy and thought her run was "pretty good. An extra turn of front wing at the last minute helped us."

Scott Sharp starts 19th in the #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota and is "still struggling this weekend." A.J. Foyt IV is 20th in his #14 Conseco Panoz G Force/Toyota and the kid acknowledged, "This is the fastest we've gone all weekend. I think we'll be good for the race but we haven't run in traffic yet." Richie Hearn is 21st in the #91 Metabolife/Delta Faucet/Life Fitness Dallara/Chevrolet and found the track "pretty good. It's tough to come in on race weekend with a new team so we've been pretty conservative." Robbie Buhl is the disappointed caboose of the 22-car field in his #24 Purex/Aventis Dallara/Chevy.

The Toyota Indy 400, a 200-lap sprint - or at least that's what the drivers say they expect it to be - starts at 12:30PM PDT and is being shown live by ABC. Castroneves will be looking to extend his championship lead while the four other drivers chasing him are hoping their chances of stopping him are better than Spiderman's. "It's a long race and whatever will be, will be. I'm going to try and finish ahead of my competitors and run a good race but you know sometimes you put on a helmet and forget to be smart. Remind me, okay?"

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Felipe Giaffone , Al Unser Jr. , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , A.J. Foyt IV , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Tora Takagi , Kenny Brack , Richie Hearn , Alex Barron , Dan Wheldon , Roger Yasukawa , Sam Hornish Jr. , Ed Carpenter , Vitor Meira
Teams Team Penske