IRL: Hornish bags Kentucky pole

Competition in the Indy Racing League is heating up even more now that Sam Hornish Jr. has taken pole position for the first time this season, heading the closest field in IRL IndyCar Series history, separated by .5367 seconds for Sunday's...

Competition in the Indy Racing League is heating up even more now that Sam Hornish Jr. has taken pole position for the first time this season, heading the closest field in IRL IndyCar Series history, separated by .5367 seconds for Sunday's Belterra Casino Indy 300.

Hornish' lap of 24.2608 seconds (219.614mph) in the heat of this sweltering afternoon is the first for Chevrolet Racing this year. "We worked on race setups in practice," Hornish said, deprecating his efforts in the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevy with a smile. "We just took some downforce out for qualifying. The race car has always been more important and I know we've got a good handling car for tomorrow.

"We know the percentages and prepare for the race each weekend. Morning warm-up will tell the real story" of who is prepared for combat on the 1.5- mile Kentucky Speedway tri-oval. Currently seventh in the point standings, Hornish has recognized all season that "you deal with what you have at the time and that's racing."

While none of the competition will talk about it, the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 has changed the face of the 2003 IndyCar Series with five races yet to run. Introduced at Michigan in Hornish's Dallara, the Gen IV came home second its first time out of the box. Last weekend at Gateway, with Hornish using a Gen III, the two-time champion was still sixth and the best-finishing Chevrolet. Maybe it's not just the engine?

Scott Dixon, who fell from first to fourth in the points chase when his clutch gave up the ghost at Gateway, brought the #9 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota to second on the grid, the Kiwi logging a lap of 24.2891 seconds (219.358mph). "We had a very good run and the car is very balanced. I got as much out of it as I could. I was loose," Dixon admitted with a grin. "Loose is fast, you know? I may have overcompensated a little bit and taken it a bit too far."

Marlboro Team Penske held the second row after single car qualifying was completed. Helio Castroneves took his #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota and bagged a third-place lap of 24.2945 seconds (219.309mph). The Gateway victor thinks, "it's good to have the competition [from Chevrolet]. What this means is it will be extremely important to be consistent. I had a lot of push in turn 2 and turned the same lap times we did this morning. I think it was a pretty good run, so we'll just have to go out tomorrow and race."

Gil de Ferran starts fourth in the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota, lapping the 1.5-mile tri-oval at 24.2958 seconds (219.297mph). "My car handled well at both ends of the track and I'm happy with the way today went. They've done a great job improving this track," de Ferran said, "and I think we're in good shape for tomorrow with a very competitive car. It'll be another long, hot day and there should be tough racing, so we just have to make sure we stay focused."

Greg Ray waved off his first try at qualifying on this bumpy circuit and was required to take only one flying lap in his #13 TrimSpa Panoz G Force/Honda. He was the fastest - by far - of all the Honda runners at 24.3708 seconds (218.622mph) and starts fifth. "We had a valve stem failure on the first attempt. A huge problem. We expect the air pressure to come up at about 45 pounds and it was at 32 pounds. I think we would have been quicker on a second lap, but all in all, we're happy."

An extremely happy Robbie Buhl starts sixth in the #24 Purex/Aventis Dallara/Chevrolet after posting a tour of 24.3888 seconds (218.461mph). "Hey," he crowed, "I'm just excited to be part of the game again. It's been so tough until now. We weren't really focused on qualifying; rather, we want a race car that can handle the power and the track and I think we've got that."

Tomas Scheckter isn't putting up the numbers of his teammate, and can't figure out why the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota was only quick enough for seventh on the 20-car grid with a lap of 24.4070 seconds (218.298mph). "I was flat all the way around but the speed's just not there," the South African mused. "We trimmed it out as much as possible and we'll just have to look at the data to see why we're slower than Scott."

Eighth on the grid belongs to Al Unser Jr., the Texas winner bringing the #31 Corteco Dallara/Toyota to the stripe at 24.4471 seconds (217.940mph). Unser believes "It's good for the IRL to have Chevrolet" in the competitive loop. "My laps today were okay but quite a bit better than I went in practice. I think they did a good job smoothing out the track and I think it'll make for a better race."

Starting ninth, the Indy Racing League's perpetual "most popular driver" Sarah Fisher brought the #23 GMAC/AOL Dallara/Chevy to the line at 24.4503 seconds (217.911mph). "It feels great," she exhaled. "We are still working on a race car, though, because Chevy can give us all the horsepower they want but we still have to have a car that can match that. We're still trying to get our program together," as she's got a new engineering staff.

Buddy Rice took 10th place in the #52 Red Bull Dallara/Chevy at 24.4667 seconds (217.7675mph) and admitted he was disappointed after being much quicker in practice. "I don't know what happened, but I do know the bumps aren't an issue. We have been running in race trim all day anyway," Buddy shrugged.

"We knew this morning I couldn't be very competitive, so I just adjusted to go in the race setup," point leader Tony Kanaan admitted after setting only the 11th quickest time today in his #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda. "We just worked on the race setup all weekend."

The Honda drivers using Dallara chassis all line up behind Kanaan in 13th (Bryan Herta, #27 Archipelago/Motorola), 14th (Dan Wheldon in the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam), 15th (Kenny Brack's #15 Pioneer/Miller Lite) and Roger Yasukawa is 16th in the #55 Panasonic ARTA car.

Although he practiced third today in the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet, Vitor Meira has not been cleared to drive tomorrow after ending the second practice session in the turn 2 outside retaining wall. Meira sustained a right wrist fracture and team owner John Menard elected not to run the car, bringing the field to a 20-car entry.

The Belterra Casino Indy 300 race, a 200-lap endurance contest, takes the green flags tomorrow afternoon at Kentucky Speedway. It will be shown live on ABC television and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network.

"We've worked so hard this year to keep ourselves seventh in the points, and while that doesn't seem very good to where we've been throughout the last two years, we're still mathematically in it to win the points," Sam Hornish declared this afternoon. "My crew hasn't complained all year. They knew they had to make sure the car would finish races and that it was put together properly.

"This is the track where I led my first lap, the track where I tested with Panther, the race that Panther decided to hire me." He finished third here in 2001, second last year and, "there is only hopefully one way to go. I've got some of the best guys out there."

If Sam was sandbagging this morning in practice, when he was 15th overall, the other 19 drivers have a great deal to fear. But then again, with Sam Hornish Jr. at the wheel of the #4 Pennzoil Panther, anything - as he's shown us all season - is possible.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Al Unser Jr. , Robbie Buhl , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Kenny Brack , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr. , Vitor Meira
Teams Team Penske