LEXINGTON, Ohio - The best way to describe yesterday's qualifying format for the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course might be musical chairs at 120 mph, in 100 degree heat.
It was a grueling test of speed, endurance and survival - just to set the field for today's IndyCar Series race.
"This is for sure the most challenging qualifying format I ever experienced," a spent Ryan Briscoe said after he qualified second, joining Team Penske teammate and pole-winner Helio Castroneves on the front row.
The qualifying on the 13-turn, 2.258-mile road course consisted of three competitive sessions run in quick order. First the 26 cars were divided randomly into two groups and each group spent 20 minutes on the track. The top six from each group then moved into a second round of runs over the rolling course, with this lasting 15 minutes.
The top six from that elimination round moved into a final, 10-minute session that determined the front three rows of today's starting grid. The IndyCar Series likes to refer to the format as "fast and furious" - and former series champion Tony Kanaan admits it is a crowd pleaser, albeit a very draining one.
"If the fans are happy, we'll go out there and we'll kill ourselves with qualifying attempts," Kanaan said after qualifying in the fifth position. "We ended up qualifying without a breath, not even time to debrief with my engineers. So give me five minutes. Myself, I like the old format. I like the single-lap qualifying a lot because either you're in or you're out. If you make a mistake, you're out. That makes it more exciting for us."
Castroneves, who won the pole here for last year's inaugural IndyCar Series race on the track that sits in a distinctly rural setting just down the road from the tiny village of Steam Corners, said any one of the top six could have emerged as the polesitter.
"It was extremely close. I wasn't checking the time because I didn't want to check. I just wanted to keep driving, but everybody was really, really close," Castroneves said. "When you're talking about thousandths of seconds, it's very difficult to describe out there speed-wise. It was a tough run."
Castroneves, who won here twice in the now defunct CART Series, said having the two Penske cars up front today will be an initial advantage, but a lot of other factors will quickly come into play.
"It's so difficult to pass because the air and turbulence here affects the car in preparation for you to overtake someone," said Castroneves, who finished third here a year ago.
"The key is going to be finding the right time to pit, saving of fuel, but not being overtaken. That's why I'm saying, sometimes starting on the front, it might risk the win. But hey, we're going to take a chance tomorrow and hopefully we can make that happen."
Marco Andretti and Justin Wilson sit on row 2, while Kanaan is joined in the third row by IndyCar Series points leader Scott Dixon, the winner of last year's event here.
Andretti said the strategy for today's race will differ a lot from the ultra-aggressive mood of the qualifying runs.
"The difference from the race is that the biggest thing in the race is if you can't overtake somebody - you might be faster - but if you can't overtake, you just kind of save fuel, so you're not charging half as much as we are in qualifying," he said.
Former Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice starts seventh, Ohio native Graham Rahal 14th and Danica Patrick 20th.
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