Ryan Briscoe couldn't help but flash a big smile.
A week after spinning out at Richmond and losing the IndyCar Series points lead, Briscoe won his second straight pole at Watkins Glen International. He turned a lap Saturday in 1 minute, 28.5970 seconds around the 11-curve, 3.4-mile road course in the Firestone Fast Six Shootout. It was his second pole of the season and sixth overall.
"I haven't had this much fun around a road course in a long time," said Briscoe, who eclipsed the former track record of 1:29.1919 set in 2007 by Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves. "These red tires were just unbelievable. They have a lot of grip."
This season Firestone introduced so-called "option tires" for all road/street course races. The tires, marked with a red line around the outer edge, have a softer tread compound for better grip but also are less durable than the standards.
Each team will be required to use the so-called "red" tires once Sunday in the 60-lap Camping World Grand Prix, but they also could use them in qualifying. That and a hard crash in the shootout by series points leader Dario Franchitti on his first lap that caused a full-course caution made the difference for Briscoe. The six-driver field only had enough time to run one fast lap.
Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing finished second to the Australian for the second straight year and was left to wonder what might have been with a set of unused red tires still sitting in his pit stall.
"That's just how it goes," Wilson said. "I was hopeful because we had a new set of red options left and everyone else had used them in the first session. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity."
Qualifying on road and street courses is broken down into three sessions. In the first, each of two groups have 20 minutes on track to run as fast a lap as possible. The fastest six cars from each group advance to the second session.
The 12 cars in the second session get 15 minutes to post their fastest lap, and the top six move to the Firestone Fast Six Shootout. In the Shootout, the finalists are allowed a new set of tires and have 10 minutes to post their best time.
Briscoe was fastest in every session, and in the second round seven drivers surpassed the track record.
Wilson was followed by three-time Watkins Glen winner Scott Dixon, Mario Moraes, and Graham Rahal. Franchitti was sixth, just ahead of rookie Mike Conway and Danica Patrick.
"I didn't have time to use the second set of reds," Moraes said. "The first set was already hot. Briscoe was really quick. I don't know if we could get him. We didn't know how the reds were going to hold the pace."
"We had one set of reds that seemed to be slower than the other," Rahal said. "It already had 15 laps on it, but it didn't have quite the pace."
Rahal's No. 2, owned by Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, failed post-qualifying tech inspection and was dropped 10 spots on the starting grid.
Left on the outside looking were defending race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will start 16th, and Castroneves, a three-time pole winner at The Glen since the series began racing here in 2005. He failed to make it out of the first round and will start 14th in the 21-car field.
"It's just a shame. This car is better than 14th," Castroneves said. "We started really well, and when we put the reds on we got a little overconfident. I took a little longer to bring the tires up. We ended up not getting what the car had to offer."
Racing at Watkins Glen for the first time in his long career, 40-year-old Canadian Paul Tracy qualified right behind Castroneves.
"I needed two or three more laps," Tracy said. "We'll have to use a different strategy for the race."
Briscoe's strategy will be simpler. Stay out front.
"It's hard to break away," he said. "There are a lot of long straights here and Justin's sitting there with a couple of new sets of reds. He's going to be tough. We have to get a good start and go from there."