Helio Castroneves can still win the IndyCar Series championship tonight – but he’s going to have to do it the hard way.
The Team Penske driver has been sent to the back of the field for trying to grab an unfair advantage in qualifying.
Last weekend the Brazilian had a near-certain win taken away at the last race for an illegal block on Justin Wilson.
Yesterday he fell foul of the rules again by dipping under the white line that marked the inside edge of the Chicagoland Speedway straight during his qualifying laps and his fourth-place speed was wiped out by stewards.
Pole was taken by his team-mate, Ryan Briscoe, who now has the task of containing the charge of Target Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon who starts second. Dixon can wrap up the champonship by finishing eighth or better.
Briscoe said: “What a way to try to finish up this season – it’s nice to win a pole on an oval. The car was great right off the truck this weekend. We just have to try to keep Dixon behind us.”
The New Zealander said: “We knew Briscoe was super fast. It cooled off a little bit [during qualifying]. I don’t know if that helped or hurt, but I knew Briscoe was going to be the guy to beat and unfortunately, he went last.
“I felt pretty comfortable in race trim when we were in traffic. I don’t think that’s going to be much of a problem tomorrow. It’s going to be strategy and staying out of trouble.”
Castroneves said nothing about his penalty, and instead focused on the charge through the field he will have to make to have any chance of challenging Dixon.
“Everybody knows our plan; there’s not much to hide. We’re going to go full throttle and we’re going to go for the win and do what we need to do to beat Scott. It will be fun, guys, it’s going to be fun.”
Andretti Green Racing will close out an underwhelming season with a strong qualifying performance – Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti will start third, fourth and fifth, while rookie Hideki Mutoh took a creditable 11th.
Two drivers hoping to impress in their final races for their current teams qualified in the top 10 – Dan Wheldon, who will leave Ganassi for Panther Racing, took sixth and Vitor Meira took eighth. Meira is seeking a 2009 drive after Wheldon took his.
Between them in eighth is Tomas Scheckter, whose Luzco Dragon team ran a very limited programme this year and hopes to go full-time next season. Owner-driver Sarah Fisher, who hopes to do the same, will start 18th.
Marty Roth, whose race performance is viewed by some as a joke in poor taste, proved once again that he knows how to qualify on an oval by taking ninth.
Justin Wilson came down to earth with a bump after his victory at the last race, managing no better than 21st – two places ahead of Darren Manning, who suffered mysterious gremlins with his car.
Manning said: “I’m not sure what happened but something’s up. We had a problem with the battery, it drained while we were in line so we had to change it right before we went out. I just couldn’t get the car up to speed.
“It felt great in the short practice – I ran 214.7s by myself, so obviously we’re disappointed with this run. We’ll get it sorted out, and we should have a good race tomorrow because when I was running in traffic in the first practice I could run with the quick cars.”
Wilson said: “The win last week was a very special moment, but there has been very little time to sit back and enjoy it with the season finale this weekend. The McDonald’s car just didn’t seem to want to go – we didn’t pull the RPM that we did earlier today.”