Dario Franchitti will start the three-way battle for the 2009 IndyCar title from pole position after outpacing his closest rivals Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe in qualifying on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami oval.
The Edinburgh driver closed the gap on team-mate Dixon to four by winning the bonus point for taking pole, his fifth of the season, with Briscoe eight off the championship lead.
Franchitti said: “The point was big today – the point was a big deal, and full marks to my team for going out and doing what we needed to do to get it. The hard work now begins because Ryan and Scott are right there and there are a few other guys that I watched in practice that looked very, very strong for the race.”
Briscoe rued missing out on the bonus point, which would have ensured that a race victory would be enough to win the championship – without it he can win the race and lose the title if Dixon finishes second.
He said: “I think the point was maybe most important to me out of the three of us. We certainly put a lot of focus into it but you can only do so much. But you know, at the same time, still in that session, we tried to do race set up work because that’s really where it’s going to count.”
Dixon’s chances of pole were damaged when he blundered while changing an in-car setting during his four-lap qualifying run, producing the opposite effect on handling to the one he intended: “I made the mistake of actually going stiffer on the rear bar, I was reaching for the front and got the rear and that made it even more exciting. Definitely had my hands full.”
A heatwave in Florida affected the handling of the cars and slowed the times. Franchitti said: “Even the people who live here are surprised by it. It’s horrible. I think, as hot as it is, the cars don’t have the aero grip that we have had in the past. So that makes it pretty difficult.
“And this track has definitely lost grip every year we’ve come here. So we’re asking a lot of the tyres, and you’ve got to keep the balance in the car. If you get too much understeer or oversteer it just gets worse and worse as the run goes on. So it definitely makes it a challenge.”
So far this season only one race has been won by anyone other than the three front-runners or Briscoe’s team-mate Helio Castroneves, who qualified 11th for the race. Best of the rest behind the championship contenders were two unexpected faces – Vision Racing’s Ed Carpenter and Briton Alex Lloyd of Newman/Haas/Lanigan, running only his third race in two years and his first since walking away from a Ganassi development deal.
Lloyd, who retains the bright pink energy drink sponsorship he carried at the Indianapolis 500, out-qualified his more experienced team-mate Graham Rahal by a single place. He said: “Everybody at HER Energy and N/H/L is very excited about our starting position. Racing here in an Indy car is different than in an Indy Lights car, but at the same time it’s nice to have some experience at the track and have that feeling.
“It’s great to be back competing in the IndyCar Series. We had a good car in qualifying and a good car in traffic. We want to go out there and be able to mix it up. There are some things I need to learn, but at the same time I think we can run at the front. Having only done the race at Indianapolis, it feels like a very quick weekend.”
Behind Lloyd and Rahal the fourth row is filled by another pair of team-mates, Andretti Green’s Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, who are locked in a battle for fifth in the overall standings behind Castroneves.
Patrick, who holds fifth going into the race, said: “The changes we made in practice today made the car better, which is what you hope for on a race weekend. It makes me believe we have a strong car for the race.”
Andretti countered: “I believe a race can be won from eighth.”
Of the other British drivers, Justin Wilson and Dan Wheldon will share the seventh row in 13th and 14th while Mike Conway will start 20th in the 23-car field.
Conway said: “Qualifying wasn’t that good for us. We struggled a little bit in practice today, and we weren’t sure what to expect. We just need to work hard during the race. With it being the last race of the season, we need to give it all we’ve got, work hard tonight and bring the car home with a good result tomorrow.”
Asked whether he would be returning next season with Dreyer & Reinbold he said he hoped to be – before adding “I’d better be.”
Wheldon was asked a similar question about his plans with Panther Racing, answering that he would definitely be in the series next year – but pointedly not saying with which team.
Talking about qualifying, he said: “We had a tough time in practice today, but that goes to show that our guys continue to work hard and we’ve certainly got a reasonable baseline to start the race tomorrow. Because of the problems we had we carried a little bit too much downforce on the car in qualifications, which is unlike me. But I’m sure we’ll bounce back for the race and the guys will do a great job.”
Wilson – the only driver outside the ‘big two’ teams to win a race this year – said he was “fairly happy” with his qualifying despite the heat reducing the grip: “Up until then it had been a difficult day. The Z-Line Designs car was good in the test so we came here expecting to be on the pace.
“Whether it was hotter or something else the car was a real handful today, but we worked through it and made some good progress towards the end of practice. The car was running pretty free in qualifying, so it was a tense four laps out there, but I was able to make it stick.”
* Before the race owner/driver Sarah Fisher confirmed that former Indy Lights champions Jay Howard would run in four races for her team next season. He will compete in the Indianapolis 500, on the ovals at Texas and Chicagoland and at the road course at Mid-Ohio.
Howard, who ran five races for Roth Racing in 2008 and caught Fisher’s eye as the teams were based next door to each other, said: “Happy is not the word I would use.
“There probably aren’t any words to describe how happy I am to be a part of Sarah’s team. I told Sarah I’d go streaking as soon as the deal was done. The guys at Sarah Fisher Racing do a great job. This is, by far, the best opportunity for me in my career.
“I just didn’t give up. I kept trying. I’m not the kind of person that’s going to lay down and go away. I believed that hard work would pay off. That’s how Sarah started her team, hard work and not giving up. It’s a perfect match.”