Dixon To Start On Pole At Motegi

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 17 2011

Scott Dixon will start the IZOD IndyCar Series race in Japan from P1 on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Scott Dixon is the one-and-only IZOD IndyCar Series pole-winner on Twin Ring Motegi’s oval and road course, and the two-time driver’s champion will attempt to become the lone race-winner on both during Sunday’s Indy Japan: The Final.

Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda, posted a hot lap of 1 minute, 38.3918-seconds at 109.143 mph around the 2.983-mile, 14-turn circuit to claim the PEAK Performance Pole Award presented by AutoZone during qualifications on Saturday.

“We’re on the pole, and that’s what counts,” said Dixon, who snapped No. 2 qualifier Will Power’s streak of seven consecutive pole positions on road and street courses. “Being in Japan for the last IndyCar race for us at the moment, it feels pretty special. To be honest, I was up on my quick lap from Q1 by two- or three-tenths of a second, but then I kept losing it in the last section in Turns 12, 13 and 14. It was a bit frustrating but we just got it. We’re the only formula here, and it’s tough to put rubber down. Hopefully, Team Target can go on for a good race tomorrow.”

Dixon, the 2003 and 2008 series champion, won the race on TRM’s 1.5-mile oval from the pole in 2009. For comparison, that pole was won under INDYCAR’s four-lap qualifying format at 202.031 mph. Sunday’s race was moved to the road-course after the oval suffered damage during the earthquake and tsunami that struck the island nation on March 11.

In the first three sessions of knockout-style qualifying, all cars used a new set of alternate red Firestone Firehawk sidewall tires. In the Firestone Fast Six, each car was equipped with used alternate tires. The primary tire is making its debut this weekend at Motegi, while the alternate is the same spec that was used earlier this season in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

The pole was Dixon’s second of the season (Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course) and the 17th of the New Zealander’s open-wheel career, tying Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi for 18th on the all-time list.

Power was tracking for the pole on his last lap of the 10-minute Firestone Fast Six session until the final two turns – a tricky left-right combination – and wound up 0.0276-seconds behind his rival. Power, of Team Penske, posted numbers of 1:38.4194/109.113 mph. The point Dixon earned for pole certainly would have helped Power, who trails championship frontrunner Dario Franchitti by five points entering the 15th of 17 races. But Power’s disappointment was tempered by Franchitti’s ninth-place qualifying run, tying his season-low at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.

“Dario starting ninth is good for us, although a lot can happen in a race,” said Power, who will make his ninth front-row start of the season in the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. “We always try to put ourselves in the position to stay out of trouble and give us the best chance of winning.

“It was a good recovery by the team after practice. We were struggling for sure in the second practice today but were able to get back on-track and to wind up qualifying second is great. I’m really kind of disappointed that we weren’t able to put that last lap together and make a good run for pole. I didn’t do what I needed to do in the last few turns but it’s still a good result for us and it’s definitely good to be starting where we are for the championship. We’re right where we need to be.”

Franchitti, who had started and finished fourth in the most recent events at Infineon Raceway and on the Streets of Baltimore, trails Power by 14 points in the Mario Andretti Road Trophy chase that will be decided at Motegi.

“I couldn’t put a lap together and left it until the last one and made a mistake in Turn 3,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda. “Then (James) Jakes went off in Turn 9 in front of me, covering the track in dirt. It was a combination of those two things (where) we missed the tenth-and-a-half we were needing.”

Graham Rahal will start third in the No. 38 Service Central Dallara/Honda after lapping at 1:38.5946/ 108.919 mph. “We led the group in the first and second segments for qualifying and thought we’d be able to finish it off, but we just didn’t have quite enough pace,” said Rahal, who logged his second top-three qualifying performance in as many races. “Scott (Dixon) and Will (Power) both put together awesome laps on the second run of tires to be on the front row. Hopefully, we can put it all together and finish right up there because a lot of the guys we’re fighting in points are starting further back than us, so it would be nice to gain a lot of good points tomorrow.”

Rahal will share Row 2 with Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe, who timed-in at 1:38.7082/108.793 mph. “It was another huge performance by Team Penske today,” said Briscoe, driver of the No. 6 Hitachi Dallara/Honda. “Here on a brand new circuit in Motegi, this really shows how much preparation and hard work our engineers have done back home. I was really looking for a little bit more in the Fast Six but our tires were just going away at the end there. We’ve really been working hard on our road course setups and it definitely shows in our results.”

Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate James Hinchcliffe and Helio Castroneves, winner on TRM’s oval last year, will occupy Row 3. Hinchcliffe qualified fifth in his second appearance in the Firestone Fast Six. “It’s nice redemption after Baltimore (started 15th),” said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 06 Sprott Newman/Haas Racing Dallara/Honda. “I was really upset that I didn’t make it out of Q1 and had no good excuse other than myself, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a good job. The car was the best its been all weekend. We kept tweaking it, and that’s what I love about this team, is they never give up.”

Rookies Charlie Kimball and Jakes qualified seventh and eighth, respectively _ both career-bests.

The 63-lap race will be televised live at 11:30 p.m. (EDT), Saturday on VERSUS and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network.

Team-owner A.J. Foyt Jr.’s Texas ranch, as well as the homes of son Larry Foyt and several crew members, were under evacuation orders during the last week because of threats from wildfires in the Houston area. Tens of thousands of acres across the Lone Star State have been scorched and hundreds of residents have been evacuated in the most recent round of fires. “I had to stay at home because if I had left, you couldn’t get back in,” said Larry Foyt, team director of A.J. Foyt Racing. “Luckily, we had A.J. ‘the fireman’ around.”

Brazilian Vitor Meira qualified Foyt’s No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda 24th in the 26-car field Saturday at 1:39.3269/108.116 mph. The team has a yellow Dollar General-logoed front wing assembly on loan from Sarah Fisher Racing as a spare for the weekend because it has gone through almost its entire inventory. The Indy Japan is the series’ third road/street course event in a row and 10th and final one of the season. Sarah Fisher Racing is not entered at TRM.

“We’ll pay for it if we use it,” Larry Foyt said.

Team Penske has shuffled some key personnel this weekend. Rick Rinaman has returned to Ryan Briscoe’s No. 6 car as chief mechanic and outside front tire-changer. Also, Matt Jonsson is moving to the post of chief mechanic of the Chevrolet engine development program. Team Penske is Chevrolet’s anchor organization for the 2012 season that will feature engine manufacturer competition among General Motors, Honda Performance Development and Lotus.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing continues to add to its legacy at TRM. Scott Dixon registered his third career pole at Motegi Saturday and the team’s sixth overall. The other poles were scored by Jimmy Vasser (1998), Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Bruno Junqueira (2002) and Dixon (2003, 2009). Saturday’s pole was the 74th in Indy car racing for TCGR and its 29th pole on a road/street course. Additionally, Sunday’s event will be three-time/reigning champion Dario Franchitti’s 50th IndyCar Series race with TCGR. The Scotsman has logged 12 wins, 27 podiums and 43 top-10s during that tenure.

Al Unser Jr. heard the roar as Honda Collection Hall associates revved up the engine of the 1965 Formula One car on the Twin Ring Motegi road course, and ordered the van driver to stop. Little Al had to get a look at the Honda RA272, the car which provided the manufacturer with its first F1 victory at the Mexican Grand Prix with American Richie Ginther as driver. Dario Franchitti took a demonstration lap in the car for a future “Road & Track” feature article.

Former Sunoco Rookie of Year Kosuke Matsuura is at TRM this weekend as a commentator for Japanese network Gaora’s coverage of Indy Japan: The Final. Matsuura, who last drove in the IndyCar Series at Motegi in 2009, visited friends in the paddock before Saturday’s practice sessions. Matsuura declined an invitation to play golf with a group on Monday, citing a prior commitment at a racing school at Suzuka Circuit, sister track to TRM. “I’m trying to resurrect my career. I’m a very good student,” said Matsuura, who actually is an instructor at the track’s racing school.

A fund to aid the family of the late Chris Griffis had been set up by Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Griffis, team manager for SSM’s Firestone Indy Lights program, passed away unexpectedly Monday in Noblesville, Ind.

Contributions to the Griffis Family Fund will assist Griffis’ widow, Mari, and children with current and future financial needs. A Celebration of Life event for the racing community is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 24, from 3-6 p.m. at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, 6803 Coffman Road, Indianapolis, 46268. Checks for the Griffis family can be made out to Griffis Family Fund and sent to Sam Schmidt Motorsports at the above address. Contributions also can be made to the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, P.O. Box 3661, Princeton, N.J., 08543-3661.

Griffis, 45, was hired by SSM in January 2004 and led the team to 46 Indy Lights race wins and four series titles _ Thiago Medeiros (2004), Jay Howard (2006), Alex Lloyd (2007) and J.K. Vernay (2010). Griffis also served as team manager for SSM’s Indianapolis 500 efforts, most recently for Townsend Bell (2010, 2011) and Lloyd (2009).

Starting lineup for the Indy Japan: The Final IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 2.983-mile Twin Ring Motegi road-course, with starting position, car number in parentheses, driver, chassis/engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.3918 (109.143)

2. (12) Will Power, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.4194 (109.113)

3. (38) Graham Rahal, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.5946 (108.919)

4. (6) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.7082 (108.793)

5. (06) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.9226 (108.558)

6. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.9743 (108.501)

7. (83) Charlie Kimball, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.7911 (108.702)

8. (18) James Jakes, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.8198 (108.671)

9. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.8738 (108.611)

10. (26) Marco Andretti, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.9058 (108.576)

11. (5) Takuma Sato, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.9194 (108.561)

12. (34) Joao Paulo de Oliveira, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.0009 (108.472)

13. (59) EJ Viso, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.9562 (108.521)

14. (19) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.7495 (108.748)

15. (77) Alex Tagliani, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.0409 (108.428)

16. (2) Oriol Servia, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.7719 (108.723)

17. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.0750 (108.391)

18. (22) Giorgio Pantano, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.8588 (108.628)

19. (4) JR Hildebrand, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.2650 (108.183)

20. (27) Mike Conway, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.9371 (108.542)

21. (24) Ana Beatriz, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.4724 (107.958)

22. (17) Hideki Mutoh, Dallara/Honda, 01:38.9407 (108.538)

23. (7) Danica Patrick, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.4789 (107.951)

24. (14) Vitor Meira, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.3269 (108.116)

25. (82) Tony Kanaan, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.5004 (107.927)

26. (78) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara/Honda, 01:39.3440 (108.097)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 17 2011
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