INDIANAPOLIS - It took a six-hour long, 220-mile-an-hour game that combined some elements of chess, cat and mouse, hide-n-seek, and king of the mountain in order to determine who would start on the pole for this year's Indianapolis 500.
When every minute of that block of time was spent, New Zealander Scott Dixon had secured the pole for his Target Chip Ganassi racing team. Dixon, who was second in last year's Indy 500, had an average speed of 226.366 miles per hour to lead the pack in the first day of qualifying.
"This means a lot, but not just for me," Dixon said. "Indy, for our team - our work towards this race started in the winter. For me, a lot of thanks go to them."
Dixon's teammate Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 2005 race, made a dramatic late dash for the pole with less than 20 minutes remaining in the qualifying session and came up a thread short. Wheldon will start second, in the middle of the front row, putting both Ganassi cars up front for the May 25 race. Wheldon posted a 226.110 average speed in his final run.
"At that point, Dan had a clear run at it," said Dixon, who won the $100,000 prize that goes to the Indy polesitter. "We'd made a couple more practice runs and had not really found much more speed."
Team owner Ganassi said the complex strategy involved in the qualifying process, plus the variables thrown into the mix by the afternoon's quirky weather conditions, allowed his drivers to stay on top.
"We've been playing poker here for a lot of years, and sometimes you are holding all the aces and sometimes you are bluffing," Ganassi said. "Today, we had a good hand - we had the aces."
The qualifying format for the Indy 500 allows teams and drivers to make up to three runs and have the right to wave off a run that is in progress, move in and out of the qualifying line, or throw out an earlier attempt as they try to improve their position.
"We came into the month saying we wanted to be on the front row," Ganassi said. "Fortunately, our cars were good enough to do that. When you have great guys like we have pushing the pedal, it's possible."
Dixon, the 2003 IndyCar Series champion and the runner-up in last year's points race, said from the drivers' perspectives, winning the pole at Indy is a very big deal.
"Amongst the drivers, this means a lot. They know how on the limit you are," he said. "It's definitely right at the top of the accomplishments I've done."
Helio Castroneves, a two-time winner of the Indy 500 who started from the pole in last year's race and finished third, qualified in the fourth position yesterday after a strong early run but decided against making a late attempt at taking the pole. His Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe took the third starting position for the Indy 500 after briefly holding the day's fastest time.
"We tried everything we could, and at that point instead of being brave you don't want to be stupid," Castroneves said. "You are trying to push it to the limit, but if your car just doesn't feel right, you've got to face it. There was more to lose by going back out than to gain."
Fan favorite Danica Patrick qualified fifth and will start in the middle of the second row. She posted the fastest time early in the session with a 225.197 mph average on her four-lap run around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval but was quickly surpassed.
"We, obviously, have a pretty quick car," Patrick said. "It's about keeping an eye on the weather, keeping your car balanced, and getting in line at the right time."
"These are not super easy [runs]. This track is very difficult when the car is not balanced right. It's intimidating, it's scary, it's difficult. We run on such an edge here. When you tip over that edge, it's very difficult. I'm telling you, I was on the edge."
Tony Kanaan, who started from the pole in 2005 and had qualified no worse than fifth in his six previous Indy 500 races, ended up sixth in yesterday's session and starts on the outside of the second row. He said his perspective on making an all-out push for the pole has changed over the years
"Six years ago, I came here and I just wanted to be the fastest guy," Kanaan said. "Then you race, and you realize that it really doesn't matter if you are not the fastest guy on the last lap on Sunday, May 25. Do I want the pole - yes, I do. Is it going to be a big deal if we don't get it - not really."
The Indy 500 qualifying process extends over two weekends, and the pole winner gets to be the official king of speed over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 15 days.
The first 11 starting positions for the race were locked up in yesterday's qualifying. Eleven more spots in the 33-car field are scheduled to be established today, with the final 11 positions to be determined next Saturday and Sunday.
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