Drivers, teams ready for Pole Day shootout at Indy

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — IndyCar drivers hope to make Saturday the greatest spectacle in qualifying. They're just not sure how the script will actually play out.

In a format change designed exclusively for entertainment value, the series' biggest names are expected to take center stage at least twice and could have to make up to five qualifying runs to win the Indianapolis 500 pole.

"I am just going to go and drive," defending Indy champ Helio Castroneves said Friday. "Whatever this guy tells me to do, I'll go and go for it. I'll be prepared."

Exactly how each team and driver intends to deal with the "shootout" is still being debated in Gasoline Alley.

Under the new rules, each of the announced 37 car-driver combinations can make up to three runs during the first five hours of qualifying. The nine fastest cars will return to the track and be required to make at least one more four-lap run during the final 90 minutes. Each of the nine drivers could then make a second attempt and the best average speed takes the pole.

The top nine cars are locked into those nine starting spots, no matter what — even if one crashes. For the first time, there will be points at stake for drivers not on the pole, and with a more lucrative payday of $175,000 to the pole winner, well, some teams will go for it.

"How much are we going to push the envelope? We're going to push it all the way," team owner Chip Ganassi said. "Is it going to be a high level of stress? I think so, but I mean that's what the fans pay for, that's what the sponsors pay for, that's what we get paid to do."

Race organizers agree.

They changed the format to eliminate those typically dull mid-afternoon hours when teams practiced while waiting for the 2.5-mile track to cool down. The ensuing late-afternoon rush then turned into a guessing game about whether drivers could make it back into the qualifying line in time to take another shot — or whether any of the top qualifiers might withdraw their original speed and requalify to take the pole.

Some drivers don't think the format adds much excitement.

"Part of the game is that there are cars that shouldn't be in line that are in line. So you have to take into account those cars," said Danica Patrick, who has never started worse than 10th at Indy. "It's just going to be like normal shootout qualifying kind of stuff with the top nine. I don't know, I mean, you can go from 10th to the top five positions pretty easily at the end of the day if you fix your car up."

The compressed schedule and the continual rain could affect qualifying, too.

Drivers and teams were already debating how much time to spend on qualifying setup vs. race setup, plans that had to constantly be adjusted because of the wet track. Rain interrupted six of the seven practice sessions this week, and what they learned in the cool, cloudy weather may not be of much help come Saturday.

The forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and a high temperature of 80, meaning drivers could be on a completely different track for practice Saturday morning.

Who are the favorites?

Well, the usual suspects are all there.

Castroneves, Roger Penske's three-time Indy winning driver and the defending pole winner, has been the fastest all week. He's the only driver to top 227 mph, hitting 227.046 on Sunday, and he topped the daily speed charts three times including Friday when he had a best lap of 226.558.

Australia's Will Power, the points leader and two-time race winner this season, was second on Friday's list at 226.429, and Penske's other driver, Ryan Briscoe, was No. 4 this week at 226.633.

The biggest competition is likely to come from Ganassi's team.

New Zealand's Scott Dixon posted the week's second-best speed, 226.971, and was fourth-fastest Friday at 225.828. Scotland's Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy winner, was No. 6 this week at 226.535.

"It (the format) is going to be tougher on the teams, tougher on the drivers to make the right calls I think at the right time," said Dixon, a two-time series champ. "I think it's going to be a lot more stress on everybody."

Brazilian Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar champ and 2005 Indy pole winner, had the best lap of any of Michael Andretti's five drivers. He went 226.775 on Thursday, third-fastest of the week.

And if there's a surprise, it's likely to be Canada's Alex Tagliani or Brazil's Mario Moraes, who were in Friday's top five. Tagliani was third at 226.153, while Moraes was fifth at 225.806.

"The car has just been fantastic," Tagliani said before turning a lap Friday. "We definitely have a shot this weekend during qualifying so we just have to baby this thing around and keep it all together."

But it will take more than a fast car to win the pole for the May 30 race.

The winner will also need nerves of steel.

"You not only have to make once statement, but you've got to make it twice and that's tough to do," Castroneves said. "As Rick (Mears) was saying, you're always trying to find the limit, but you've got to make sure that you complete all four laps, too."