IRL: Team Penske dominates Nazareth qualifying

Nazareth, PA - Marlboro Team Penske dominated qualifying for tomorrow's Firestone Indy 225, with Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves filling the front row at 172.778 mph and 172.587 mph, respectively. This was Gil's first pole in IRL competition.

Nazareth, PA - Marlboro Team Penske dominated qualifying for tomorrow's Firestone Indy 225, with Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves filling the front row at 172.778 mph and 172.587 mph, respectively. This was Gil's first pole in IRL competition. He clocked his fast time on the second of his two qualifying laps, after a thrilling wiggle exiting Turn 3 the first time around.

"The thing about Turn 3 is that it really affects two laps," Gil said. "I was very aware of that. I wanted to close the first lap well and open the next lap well. I pushed a little bit in the middle, then put the hammer down and hoped that I'd have enough room. The car just pushed a little bit and got sideways on the exit. But I managed to keep my foot in it and had a good exit. That was probably what started the beginning of the good lap."

Helio is happy to be on the front row for the third time out of four races this season. "It's always very good (to start up front)," he said. "But I don't think it's as important, as I learned in Homestead and Phoenix, as having a good race car. Traffic is going to be all the time."

Comparing his qualifying run with Gil's, "That was a good run for Gil. I had a little trouble in my last lap. Normally you take it a little easy on your first one to establish a good lap. Then on the second one I went for it. Unfortunately, I had oversteer on the entrance (to Turn 3). Gil had understeer on the exit, I had oversteer on the entrance. Then the car was - Yikes!! But it was still fun. That's why this track is so challenging. That's why I believe the race is going to be very tough. You have to be patient."

Patience and waiting for a chance to pass will be keys to tomorrow's race. Gil does not think his prior experience in CART competition at Nazareth will be an advantage. "This is a very different driving style," he said. "The IRL cars tend to behave pretty well in traffic. However, this has always been a track where it's hard to pass. It's going to be hard to pass in these cars as well. It's not going to be like Fontana with a lot of people two wide. It will probably be harder than Phoenix, where Helio and I ran two laps side by side. Here it's tougher to do that sort of thing."

But there will be fun as well. "In terms of enjoyment," Gil said, "I think these cars are really well adapted to this type of track. I really enjoy them. I find them challenging. It's unbelievable how fast these things are through three - just a half lift and mashing the gas again and hoping. It's exciting, and difficult. You have to be absolutely precise. I enjoy it."

Third place qualifier, Jaques Lazier, wasn't quite content with his speed of 171.977 mph. "Unfortunately, we left a little bit on the table there. We knew being one of the first cars to go out after Silver Crown qualifying would have an effect and it did. They left a lot of rubber on the track, which we picked up on our Firestones, especially in Turn 3. That probably cost us two-tenths." Aside from that, he was satisfied with the car. "It was a good lap, though. This car is hooked up, there's no question about that. I'm looking at what we have for Sunday, and I'm not too disappointed that we're not sitting on the pole. Right now, I wouldn't trade this car for anyone else's in the paddock."

Rookie Tomas Scheckter, fourth fastest qualifier at 171.409 mph, is happy to have done so well on what is the strangest track he's seen. "I had never seen this circuit before this weekend, so I am happy to qualify fourth. The guys on the Red Bull Cheever Racing crew did an unbelievable job. I didn't get my qualifying right, so I am happy with this result. In the race I will be looking for clean air and to stay out of the way."

Last year's Rookie of the Year, Felipe Giaffone, was not as happy about his fifth place speed of 171.249 mph. "I was actually expecting a little more for qualifying. We are right there, and we keep moving a little bit. We should be good for the race. We have a lot of downforce in the car, so tomorrow we will have our work cut out for us."

Sam Hornish Jr, who has been on the leader board in the first three races this year, qualified a disappointing eighth fastest at 170.782 mph. "We are not quite as fast as we would like to be. We always want to be fast and up front at the start of the race, so we are not quite there yet. We were working on setup most of yesterday, so we are pretty happy with that. We just have to wait and see what the weather does tomorrow, but I'm sure the Pennzoil Panther Racing car will have a good race."

Hornish is surrounded by rookies Laurent Redon (seventh fastest, 170.907 mph) and George Mack (ninth fastest, 170.442 mph). Both enjoy the track, but are respectful of it. "My experience here is pretty low, but I like the track," said Redon. "It's a pretty nice track. It's a busy track. Let's see for the race. I'm sure it will be a very difficult race here and very tough."

Mack had been warned about the unique features of Nazareth, and prepared by playing computer simulations. "The track is exactly the way it is on the game," he said. "Where the bumps are here, the bumps are in the game, too." Despite the digital similarity, he is suitably impressed. "I was told that Phoenix was the most technical, but this kicks Phoenix's ass by a long shot. You have to pay attention to what works and what does not work." His plan for tomorrow includes watching for attrition, carefully picking his passes, and maintaining mental focus.

Sarah Fisher returns to competition for the first time this season, substituting for Robbie Buhl. Buhl is occupying himself coaching Sarah as she meshes with the team. Sarah put the car in the tenth row at 168.054 mph, slightly off the pace of her best practice times.

"In practice, the car would go wherever I wanted it to go," she said. "We tried some things in qualifying that I wanted to try to free it up a little bit, but it was just a little too loose. We're going to go back on some of those changes and hopefully have a really good race car.

Sarah feels that getting into Buhl's car, which is an established performer, does put pressure on her but helps a lot. Buhl's help is a definite asset. "It's very helpful. I don't think I could be doing as well as I am unless he was here. He's an excellent coach. I'm very fortunate to have him along."

Rain in the late afternoon postponed today's scheduled USAC race activity and canceled this afternoon's final IRL practice. There will be a final twenty minute "happy hour" practice at 10:00 am tomorrow, following the rescheduled USAC Midget and Sprint Races. The Firestone Indy 225 remains scheduled for 1:00 pm. The USAC Silver Crown race will follow the Indy 225.

General Admission tickets purchased for today will be honored tomorrow.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Sarah Fisher , Felipe Giaffone , Robbie Buhl , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Jaques Lazier  , Laurent Redon , George Mack , Sam Hornis
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske