DAVE FRACHETTE / AP Enlarge
BROOKLYN, Mich. - Most of the buzz around the Andretti Green Racing team gets its energy from Indy 500 winner and points leader Dan Wheldon, defending IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan, and Dario Franchitti, currently tied for second in points with a win and two seconds in his last four races.
Then there is Bryan Herta, the Michigan native who has one win in his brief Indy Racing League career.
Herta went out early in yesterday's qualifying for today's Firestone Indy 400 and bested his teammates - and the rest of the field. He put up a number no one could match - a lap of 219.141 miles per hour - and claimed his third pole of the year.
"I was actually surprised," said Herta about starting on the inside of the front row. "We went so early in the line, and I was surprised initially at the speed the car did. It was faster than we practiced."
Herta, who was born in Warren, Mich., but now makes his home in California, is ninth in the points race, but only 12 points out of sixth place coming into today's race, the 11th in the 17-race schedule.
"I fully expected that one or two of the cars that went later on were going to get us, and they didn't," Herta said. "I know what happened today won't have a great deal to do with the outcome of the race. Race set-up is a lot different than qualifying, so I don't expect that just because we're on the pole, that's going to make things any easier than they would be if we qualified on the last."
Tomas Scheckter, who has a win and three pole positions to his credit so far this season, was just .041 mph behind Herta in his Chevrolet-powered Panther Racing car and will start on the outside of the front row after his 219.100 run.
"We have to go away happy with that," Scheckter said. "The car is just unbelievable. I can't wait to see what it will do in the race. Things have really been moving in the right direction for us."
Scheckter, who got the first IndyCar Series win of his career at MIS in 2002, said the wide, fast track should allow a full-throttle dash from start to finish.
"You get massively close racing here," Scheckter said. "I think this year you are going to see a lot of four-abreast all the way around. Hopefully, nobody does anything stupid and we can just see who is best at the end."
Buddy Rice, the defending champion in the race who is winless since last year's visit to MIS, qualified third at 218.909 mph, his second-best starting position this year.
"That little black cloud has been following us for most of the season," Rice said, "and now we are back at a track where we put the car in victory lane last year. I know that 400 miles is a long race and you have to have everything working, but I think there is a confidence level for this team. Let's hope we are good on Sunday."
Rookie Danica Patrick posted a qualifying speed of 218.479 mph and was eighth-fastest in the field. Patrick will make her eighth start in the top 10 positions in 11 races this season.
"Eighth is all right," she said. "The car felt better than it had all day. I think we have as good a shot as anyone else out there. The main focus is getting the car right for the race."
Patrick has not raced at MIS before, but thinks the proper strategy is to stay out of trouble and not get caught up in being overly aggressive.
"I think being smart on big tracks is part of it, and getting through traffic when you can is important," Patrick said. "Faster cars tend to migrate toward the front on bigger tracks, so I'll have to be able to get around cars. A lot of things have to go right."
Sam Hornish Jr. qualified 13th at 217.373 mph, and said he was not as disappointed with that placement as he normally would be, since MIS affords him the opportunity to move up through the pack.
"Well, it wasn't quite where we wanted to qualify, but Michigan International Speedway is one track where starting position isn't as important because you can win from pretty much anywhere," Hornish said.
"I think we'll have two advantages tomorrow. Marlboro Team Penske has done a great job with our race setup all year, and my crew is one of the best at getting me in and out of the pits quickly. With those two factors at work, we should be able to battle for a top-five finish for sure, if not for the win."
Defending IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan was 14th at 217.167 mph, while former Indy 500 champ Buddy Lazier qualified fifth at 218.683 mph.42.11068 -84.24795