IndyCar’s two dominant teams, Penske and Ganassi, grabbed the top positions in qualifying for the Firestone 550K at the Texas Motor Speedway, with Britain’s Alex Lloyd leading the challenge for the rest of the field in sixth.
Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe edged Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti for pole, the Scot just failing to maintain a high-enough average speed across his four-lap qualifying run to outpace his Australian rival.
Both drivers are hoping to ride ongoing trends all the way to victory in tonight’s daylight-to-evening race – most notably Franchitti, who would become the third driver in a row to follow winning the Indianapolis 500 with a win in Texas.
Briscoe, by contrast, qualified and finished third in Texas two years ago, then improved by a place last year to start and finish second. He’s hoping for a similar step up this year: “I also started 12th and finished 12th in 2005, so we should just call it a win, right?” he asked hopefully.
“It’s going to be a tough, challenging race. Racing in this heat, it definitely does not make it easy flat like everyone thinks it is. It’s a great feeling to get the pole here. Thanks Dario for falling off that little bit on the last lap.”
Franchitti said: “I was doing my thing in the car and I didn’t know how exactly close we were to Briscoe’s time but I guess it was pretty close in the end.”
The difference turned out to be 0.012mph, or just under six one-thousandths of a second.
He said there was no hangover from his victory on Sunday: “It wasn’t too hard to come here after the Indy 500. There are a lot of points in the season where we have two back-to-back street or road courses that are more physically demanding than the ovals.
“Indy and Texas certainly have a physical element and they are both mentally demanding. The massive heat could be a challenge here in Texas but, by the time we get to the end of the race, it should be cooled down.”
Behind them will start championship leader Will Power of Penske, Ganassi’s Scott Dixon, and last year’s winner Helio Castroneves of Penske.
Rather unexpectedly sharing the third row with Castroneves will be Dale Coyne Racing’s Lloyd, following up his equally unexpected fourth place at Indy in the Boy Scouts of America car with another fine performance.
He said: “Today went really well. The Boy Scouts’ guys did a fantastic job preparing the car here and we rolled off the truck really strong. Starting up front here is a big plus and we are looking forward to continuing the momentum that we’ve got going right now into a good race.”
Hideki Mutoh qualified seventh for the under-seige Newman/Haas Racing team, which has been reduced to a shadow of its former self by funding problems, while Danica Patrick was the best of the four Andretti Autosport drivers, and top American qualifier, in eighth.
Her team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay said in a race preview: “Texas is one of those tracks where if your car is good you are having a blast. If you don’t have it together, then it’s like purgatory.” Sadly for him, his car was only good enough to qualify 24th of 26.
With Mike Conway out of action for three months following his Indy 500 crash, his team Dreyer & Reinbold are fielding Tomas Scheckter in the #24 car. The South African qualified 18th, while team-mate Justin Wilson was 12th.
Wilson said: “I thought we had a decent qualifying run today in the Charter Communications car. It was hot and slick on the track, but the run was comfortable and I was able to keep my foot in it the entire run. We’ll work on our race set-up in the final practice and get the car dialled in for the race.”
Dan Wheldon will start 15th for Panther Racing, with Sarah Fisher Racing’s Jay Howard 21st.
Wheldon, was finished as runner-up at Indy, said: “Our run wasn’t too bad – the National Guard Panther Racing boys have been working hard and we’re hoping for a really good result. We’re coming off a great result at Indianapolis and the races before that too, which is a testament to the great work of the team.
“The heat is something we expected and obviously it’s going to cool down as we get into the evening, so we’re going to work hard to determine how the cooler temperatures affect the car and make the appropriate changes.”