IRL: Rice burns up the Homestead track

Anyone into numerology and interesting tidbits would be intrigued by the front row for tomorrow's Indy Racing League IndyCar Series opening race of the 2004 season. Buddy Rice, driving Team Rahal's ...

Anyone into numerology and interesting tidbits would be intrigued by the front row for tomorrow's Indy Racing League IndyCar Series opening race of the 2004 season. Buddy Rice, driving Team Rahal's #15 Pioneer/Argent Mortgage Panoz G Force/Honda starts from MBNA Pole Position. Alex Barron, who pilots the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet holds the outside front row slot.

That's two exciting American drivers on the front row of the IRL season starter, for those keeping tabs at home.

Last year, Rice was the driver of record for much of the IndyCar Series season at Cheever's equipe, while Barron replaced him in the final three races of the year and became Cheever's lead driver for 2004. This season the 28-year-old Arizona native is substituting for Kenny Brack while the Swede recovers from injuries sustained in the 2003 IRL season finale.

Racing makes strange bedfellows, doesn't it?

Rice was the penultimate driver to qualify on an afternoon when weather had a great deal to do with the outcome. This morning, skies in South Florida were overcast, temperatures were chilly and times were quick, with the field separated in practice #3 by just half a second. As qualifying time approached, the skies cleared, typically warmer temperatures appeared and, as usual the winds came up at this 1.5-mile banked oval.

Rice's speed - on his second timed lap - was a dazzling 24.5920 seconds (217.388mph), marking Rice's first IRL pole position, a new lap record for the Indy cars and placing the Panoz G Force/Honda combo on pole position. "Team Rahal has done an excellent job to get me here. They've been working super hard and to get this pole position is beautiful. We've been making sure we knew exactly what we had for the race," Rice allowed, "and we feel we're going in the right direction."

Barron, the journeyman driver who's had many different opportunities with top teams like Marlboro Team Penske, Mo Nunn Racing and now with Red Bull Cheever Racing, was the ninth of 19 drivers to make qualifying attempts. On his second lap, the Menifee, CA resident turned 24.6469 seconds (216.904mph), and then had to sit and wait to see if anyone could top him. "You always want to have a good start to the season," Barron acknowledged.

"It's very difficult to go out early and watch. The team gave me a great car," Barron said. "We've made some big gains. I thought we had a real good shot at the pole, but I'm really pleased to have a front row start." Barron had been fastest during open testing here late last month.

Tomas Scheckter, fastest yesterday in preliminary practice lines up third in the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet after lapping the reconfigured Homestead oval at 24.6726 seconds (216.678mph). "That's not bad at all," the South African shrugged with a smile. "We wanted to be somewhat near the front, but we worked hard on our race setup" for tomorrow's contest. Scheckter doesn't think there will be too much side-by-side running in Sunday's race; he believes there will be too much car movement to facilitate tight racing amongst the Indy cars.

Dario Franchitti was the quickest of four Andretti Green Racing drivers, bringing the #27 Arca/Ex Dallara/Honda to fourth on the grid with a lap of 24.6815 seconds (216.599mph). "I think the car is pretty well balanced and I think we're in pretty good shape for tomorrow," the Scot said as he watched others try to beat his quick lap. "We were very close but not good enough."

Bryan Herta, who drove in relief of Franchitti for much of last season lines up fifth in the #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda after turning 24.6877 seconds (216.545mph) on his second timed lap. The Valencia, CA resident "only took two qualifying runs during practice yesterday and today and the weather heated up quite a bit" from those laps. When asked his opinion of the new track layout, Herta admitted he prefers the old Homestead configuration.

Rookie Mark Taylor earned the sixth starting slot for the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevy squad operating from Panther Racing's shops. The Briton excitedly remarked, "The car felt great! I'm getting more confident in the car and I'm just ready for that green flag to wave tomorrow." His best lap was 24.7006 seconds for 216.432mph.

In his first drive for Marlboro Team Penske, Sam Hornish Jr. took seventh on the grid, hauling the #6 Dallara/Toyota to a tour of 24.7132 seconds (216.322mph). Hornish thought his run was pretty good but reminded, "We worked on setup for the race yesterday and didn't really work on qualifying too much. A top-eight start would be good," he said before qualifying was completed. "We're working to get a good-handling car for the race."

Tony Kanaan, one of five drivers who went to the final 2003 race vying for the IRL championship starts eighth tomorrow in his #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda. Kanaan admitted he "made a mistake and used fifth gear instead of sixth. I should have known better," he chastised himself after running 24.7527 seconds (215.976mph) on his first timed lap.

Another rookie, Ed Carpenter starts ninth tomorrow in the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy after lapping at 24.7587 seconds (215.924mph). Carpenter feels "really comfortable in the car. I know this team is excellent and I feel like I'm in the right place. Of course," he said, "I feel like I could have done better but this is my best start in the Indy cars."

The final driver to qualify this afternoon, Helio Castroneves earned tenth in the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota. Castroneves initially aborted his run after a change the team made was apparently wrong. Permitted only one flying lap, the Brazilian turned 24.7630 seconds (215.887mph) and sighed, "I'm glad I was the last one in line," so the team could effect changes. "We tried to take a chance and it just didn't work out."

Robbie Buhl was the second driver in line to qualify and hauled the #24 Team Purex to 11th on the grid. While Buhl had hoped to be in the top ten he was, nonetheless pleased with his "good solid run. We don't know what other people have and were looking for a high 215mph lap," which the team achieved. "I feel good about this season," he added.

The reigning IRL IndyCar Series champion, Scott Dixon starts 12th in the #1 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota. Dixon wasn't surprised by his lack of speed in qualifying today. He'll start 12th tomorrow, just as he did last year when he won the season opener. "We knew we wouldn't be that fast but the car is very good. I'm pretty happy," the Kiwi said. "We haven't run a whole lot of laps here."

His new teammate, Briton Darren Manning lines up in 13th slot driving the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota. "That was as fast as we were gonna be in qualifying," Manning admitted. "We've put more concentration on race setup and the car is great in traffic. I like the high line and it's easy to run flat here," he noted.

Dan Wheldon, who had been third in this morning's practice, starts 14th in the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda. "We just missed it a little bit," said the 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year. "I think we've got a good race car for the kind of side-by-side running you'll see tomorrow. The aero configuration on this [changed] track is new for everybody but I think we ought to be able to pass out there."

The first driver to qualify today, Greg Ray has little experience with the different Homestead track, as he didn't drive in the January open test. He said the #13 Renovac Panoz G Force/Honda was "okay. We've just got to figure out why we're not faster. We've got a good car for the race and a competitive team but we still need to catch up," he said after qualifying 15th.

Tora Takagi will start the #12 Pioneer Mo Nunn Racing Dallara/Toyota 16th. Scott Sharp continues to have qualifying troubles and holds 17th place in the #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota. "We're not where we want to be and we don't know why we're down on speed right now," he explained after his run.

Rookie Kosuke Matsuura enjoyed his first qualifying run in the #55 Panasonic ARTA Panoz G Force/Honda, despite his 18th starting slot. "This is easy compared to European [style] qualifying, but the run wasn't very good. I expected much better because we had a good car yesterday and didn't change much. I am disappointed."

A.J. Foyt IV didn't have anything to say after his qualifying run, slowest at 212.387mph in the #14 Conseco Dallara/Toyota. His crew changed engines after Friday practice and, unfortunately the speed shown yesterday by the young Texan pretty much evaporated.

Tomorrow's pole man, Rice thinks we can expect 200 laps of excitement when the Indy cars take the green flag shortly after 2PM EST. "I think you'll see huge packs of cars," fighting for position. "With five gallons less fuel in the tanks, strategy should be very important. We've all been running closely this weekend," Rice said. "The IndyCar Series tries to make it more competitive for us and I think they've succeeded."

The Toyota Indy 300 is the first of 16 races in the 2004 season. The event will be telecast live in the United States on ESPN.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Mark Taylor , Darren Manning , Greg Ray , Robbie Buhl , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , A.J. Foyt IV , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Tora Takagi , Bryan Herta , Kenny Brack , Alex Barron , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Kosuke Matsuura , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr. , Ed Carpenter , Mo Nunn
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske