Dan Wheldon scored his first front-row start in 18 races as he and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing colleague Scott Dixon locked up the front row in qualifying for the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at the Kansas Speedway.
With pole decided by the fastest average speed over four solo laps, Dixon topped the standings with a speed of 213.956mph. Wheldon, running last, was the only driver to come close to him with 213.641mph.
Behind them, some of the bigger names failed to perform and were shouldered out by unexpected rivals, such as Marty Roth in his best-ever performance at 7th, and Tomas Scheckter who ranked fourth on his season debut.
The newly-minted St Danica of Patrick, brimming with confidence following her debut win, served notice that she doesn’t plan to be a one-hit wonder by qualifying third – but her Andretti Green team-mates Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan, and the Team Penske pair of Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, all failed to shine.
“I was a little surprised with the time chart – but that’s good for the sport,” said Wheldon, who won last year’s race from fourth.
A mixed-up grid equals better entertainment, in his book: “As we move on into 2009, you want a lot of different people from different teams running up front and creating surprises as the weekend goes on.”
He thinks the new qualifying format rewards driving over engineering, as drivers can take risks that wouldn’t be sustainable over a full race distance or on a crowded track: “It puts a premium on car handling because on some of these tracks you can hold your breath for a lap. Even if your car isn’t good enough, you can put in a reasonable time. This adds another challenge.”
Dixon, however, put the credit for his pole squarely on the shoulders of his engineers: “Dan was maybe a tenth quicker than us this morning. It was hard to tell because there were so many cars on track that you couldn’t get a clean lap. I think we have to put a lot of it down to the guys on the team.
“The guys that prepare these cars are very critical to aerodynamics, especially when you’re by yourself. In a pack, it doesn’t show that much, but a lot of credit goes to them for being ready for today.”
Wheldon put his failure to snatch pole from his team-mate down to conservative driving on his part: “It was a good day for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. I probably wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been. But we do have a lot of work to do to be competitive tomorrow.”
Further down the standings in 16th, AJ Foyt Racing’s Darren Manning is pinning his faith on the likely open nature of the race, where plenty of overtaking opportunities mean that qualification position is relatively unimportant.
He said: “The car’s good for the race, we just need to work on our outright speed. We’re coming back to these tracks with a good baseline setup so the car’s very driveable. In the race, I can run with the guys, which showed at St. Pete and Motegi, and I believe we’ll be competitive here.”
Jay Howard will start one place ahead of him in 15th, having served notice that Roth Racing were having a good weekend with his 210.617mph qualification speed. Later in the session team boss Marty Roth posted what was at that point the second-fastest mark with 212.182mph, although he later dropped to a still-impressive 7th.
All the former Champ Car teams struggled with the qualifying format as their engineers are still learning how to get the most out of their new Dallara / Honda / Firestone machinery. Newman / Haas / Lanigan’s Justin Wilson could manage only 22nd – but was relieved to have just qualified at all after his engineers won a race against time to fixed a failing gear box.
He said: “On the last lap of the practice session the car jumped from fifth gear down to third and the McDonald’s crew did a great job of getting some parts changed inside the gearbox afterwards. It was close in terms of timing to get to qualifying but they managed to get it done.
“Qualifying was straightforward; kind of what we expected. It’s difficult being first out but I’m just very pleased that the McDonald’s team was able to qualify today despite the gear issue. I had the throttle wide open and the car was working well. The car was more stable then than it was earlier in the day.”
If qualifying brought as much as could have been hoped for, he believes he can do better in the race itself: “I was quite pleased with qualifying but I am a little frustrated because I think we can do better in the race than we can in qualifying. We’re pretty much qualifying what we will race. It’s probably not going to be very quick today but I think we can be a lot better tomorrow.”
Full qualifying speeds and positions, along with practice statistics, can be downloaded from the IndyCar site in PDF form here.