Castroneves puts Penske on pole at Indy

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Hélio Castroneves and team-mate Ryan Briscoe traded the top spot back and forth during the six hours of Pole Day qualifying at Indianapolis last Saturday. On a windy afternoon nobody could challenge the Penske pair, with Castroneves eventually edging his team-mate by half a second over the four qualifying laps. Hélio averaged 224.864mph to Ryan’s 224.083mph.

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Briscoe was faster than Castroneves on their first qualifying runs early in the afternoon, but both went quicker later in the day after withdrawing their original cars and speeds. This is Castroneves’s third Indy 500 pole and the 15th time that one of Roger Penske’s cars will lead the field away at the Brickyard.

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“The car was too comfortable on our first run,” said Castroneves. “We worked together and made the cars a little more on the edge, a little quicker. It’s a lot of fun when you push the limit and everybody works together to do it. This is a team effort and this team is the best.”

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Added Briscoe: “The cars were so good straight off the truck and that gives us a lot of confidence to really trim out the cars for qualifying. It’s been exciting and it’s such a great feeling knowing we’re going into the Indy 500 with very strong cars.”

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Castroneves was acquitted on federal tax evasion charges last month and is delighted to once again be a free man able to pursue his chosen profession. “I feel at home here at Indianapolis,” he said. “I just have to thank everybody for the warm welcome I’ve received. It’s like a big family. Racing is my life – it’s what I love and I have to thank all the fans. It means a lot.”

The biggest challenge to Penske came from Chip Ganassi’s cars. Dario Franchitti completed the front row with a run at 224.010mph while last year’s winner Scott Dixon was fifth fastest, just 0.1sec slower than Franchitti over the four laps.

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“It would have been nice to be on pole,” said Dario. “But we’ve won from third on the grid before, so hopefully it’s a good omen. Honestly, that was most of the speed the car had in it today. We got hit by a couple of gusts of wind which cost us, but we just didn’t have the speed to match the Penske cars. Those were definitely the craziest qualifying laps I’ve driven here. With the wind and everything, we were hanging it out today.”

Graham Rahal qualified an impressive fourth, splitting the Ganassi pair for Newman/Haas/Lanigan. Rahal had to scrub his original qualifying run because the team wanted to run a slightly different configuration for the race, and he was without a spare car after team-mate Robert Doornbos crashed two – one on Friday and the second on Saturday morning. As a result Doornbos will have to qualify next weekend.

“The car was really nice,” said Rahal. “It had maybe a bit too much understeer. But we got through our run safely, which is what we needed to do. It says a lot for the work this team has done and how much we’ve improved the car over the last year.”

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IRL points leader Tony Kanaan was the fastest of Andretti-Green’s four cars. Kanaan qualified sixth and will start the 500 on the outside of row two. Team-mates Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick will start from the third and fourth rows respectively. Also among the first-day qualifiers was Will Power, who put Penske’s third car on the outside of row three.

Fastest in Sunday’s qualifying was rookie Raphael Matos, who lapped his Luczo-Dragon entry owned by Roger Penske’s son Jay at 223.429mph. Matos starts the 500 from 12th on the grid. Paul Tracy was second fastest on Sunday at 223.111mph and will start the race from 13th. Tracy made a couple of qualifying runs on Saturday but was bumped from the top 11. He made two more runs on Sunday before he was satisfied.

Justin Wilson was fourth fastest on Sunday at 222.849mph, qualifying behind Vítor Meira. After making the field on Saturday, Wilson was disqualified for being underweight. Justin re-qualified in good order on Sunday and will start from 14th place in the middle of row five. Also among Sunday’s second-day qualifiers was 2005 Indy winner Dan Wheldon, who crashed on Saturday. Wheldon came back to qualify at 222.777mph and will start from the outside of row six.

The final 11 places in the 33-car field will be determined next weekend, and the race takes place the following Sunday on May 24.

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