Franchitti Breezes To Texas Pole

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 5 2009
Dario Franchitti will start from P1 on Saturday at Texas.

Dario Franchitti will start from P1 on Saturday at Texas.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – Dario Franchitti says qualifying an IndyCar on a track like Texas Motor Speedway is so easy, even a Scotsman can do it.

“Qualifying on a 1.5-mile track is really more about the way the guys put the cars together and the setup, and the driver just has to try not to screw it up,” Franchitti said Friday afternoon, after earning pole position for the Bombardier Learjet 550k. “Tomorrow is when we get to work, really.”

Franchitti bagged his first Peak Performance Pole Award of the season with a four-lap average time of 1:37.6725-seconds/214.513 mph. The pole was the seventh of Franchitti’s IndyCar career, and first since qualifying P1 on the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway in September 2007 – his championship season.

Scott Dixon still owns the four-lap format qualifying record here at 1:37.5063-seconds/214.878 mph, set last June.

Franchitti, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, knocked Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe off the point at 6:03 p.m., in the heat of the afternoon. Briscoe will start on the outside of the two-car front row after timing in at 1:37.7179-seconds/214.413 mph over the distance of 1.455-miles.

The 24-car field includes an all-star Row 2 of defending event winner Dixon (214.296 mph) and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves (214.228 mph), poised for 228 laps when the race begins at 8:30 p.m., CDT. Another evening of side-by-side and pack racing is expected, preceded by some words of caution from Brian Barnhart, president/competition and racing operations for the Indy Racing League.

Series regular Ed Carpenter of Vision Racing was among drivers voicing concern for what he termed “a few close calls” during Thursday night’s practice. “There are guys in fast cars that don’t have the experience on mile and a-half ovals that need to figure out what they’re doing, or they are going to cause an accident,” Carpenter said.

Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 and series champion, said he and Castroneves made the same observation after their qualifying runs Friday.

“We talked about some of the stuff going on in practice (Thursday night), some of the stuff that we’d seen and that needs to be addressed before the race,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Energizer Dallara/Honda fielded by Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “That’s one of the good things about having Al Unser Jr. as the driver advisor – if there’s some crazy stuff he goes and says, ‘Hey, you need to calm that down.’ I think it’s going to be a fight all night between a bunch of cars.”

Franchitti said his problem Thursday night was with rookie Raphael Matos, who qualified 15th in the No. 2 US Air Force Luczo Dragon Racing Dallara/Honda. “He took me down below the white line in the middle of the corner. Hope it wasn’t on purpose,” Franchitti said. “But one of the tricks and one of the things you have to understand is the position of your car relative to other people’s cars. Everybody can make a mistake, but you’ve got to treat every single person on the track with respect. That’s one of the reasons we can do what we do here at Texas.”

That incident aside, Franchitti said Thursday night’s practice also produced glimpses of the side-by-side racing that has become TMS’ IndyCar signature.

“If we can’t do it here, we’re going to struggle to do it anywhere,” said Franchitti, who earned his second pole at TMS and first since 2004. “I think we’ll be fine tomorrow night. I think it’s almost a product of the cars being so equal, that there’s really no kind of separation. That’s maybe something we saw at Indy. Indy’s got a really narrow groove, but here it’s two- or three-wide.”

Franchitti did not compete in this series at TMS last year, when he was still running NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series with Ganassi Racing. His pole should allow Franchitti to lead his first laps at TMS since 2004, when he paced a total of 30 circuits in two events. Franchitti started on-pole and finished second in the June event in ’04 to Tony Kanaan _ then his teammate at Andretti Green Racing.

“I remember the race well in ’04,” said Franchitti, who finished 0.2578-seconds behind Kanaan. “I was advised that I should let TK through and save some fuel behind him.  Once I let him through (on Lap 34) I couldn’t get past him. It’s incredibly close and so difficult to find an advantage. It’s going to be an interesting night.”

Briscoe, who started and finished third in this race last year despite a mistake on pit road, said his No. 6 Dallara/Honda is race-ready. “The car’s been good all weekend,” said Briscoe, who topped Friday afternoon’s final practice with a hot lap at 214.692 mph. “Last night we did a lot of pack running and that’s the way I expect it to be in the race. The car is solid, good in the heat, and pretty consistent in different conditions.

“We had a good run here last year. I made a mistake in pit lane (stopping in Castroneves’ stall), which put us a lap down almost.  Finding our pit stalls the first pit stop _ that’s always a challenge. It’s our first night race of the season, so it might take a little adjustment there.

“It’s my third time here and every time I come here you learn stuff. It’d be nice to have a clean race tomorrow night and be at the front all the time, try not to make it too interesting. For sure, I’m feeling more and more on top of the game.”

Dixon qualified a season-best third in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda, and now has a three-point lead over Franchitti (161-158), who received one point for qualifying on-pole. Briscoe is third with 157, followed by Danica Patrick at 139 and Castroneves at 136.

“We have a quick car, and we didn’t qualify as fast as I thought we would,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda. “But we’ll move onto tomorrow and the important thing is that it’s a long race, and we have a really good car. The fastest car is not always the winner at Texas. I’ve won from the pole and I’ve won from third place.

“Tomorrow night will be a challenge because a lot of people will be close to one another on the track, but hopefully everyone will be smart at the beginning and it will be a good, clean race.”

Patrick, who is working on a streak of four consecutive top-five finishes, will start fifth after a four-lap run at 213.929 mph. The second car out, Patrick held the pole until Dixon bumped her off four cars later.

“The car felt good as soon as I went out,” said Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Boost Mobile/Motorola Dallara/Honda fielded by AGR. “We’re trying to have as many options for the car as we can. I wish we could’ve held onto the pole, but I think we’re going to be really competitive tomorrow night.” Patrick will start alongside Mario Moraes, who qualified the No. 5 KV Racing Technology/Votorantim Dallara/Honda sixth at 213.717 mph.

Former series champion Dan Wheldon will start seventh after qualifying at 213.596 mph in the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing entry. AGR’s Marco Andretti qualified eighth at 213.540 mph in the No. 26 Team Venom Energy car.

Robert Doornbos is the highest-qualified rookie, starting ninth after a run at 213.479 mph in the No. 06 Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Dallara/Honda. Rounding out the top 10 is Carpenter, who qualified the No. 20 Menards Vision Racing car at 213.435 mph.

“This is obviously a very special oval. It’s an exciting place; I really love it,” said Doornbos, a Formula One transplant from the Netherlands who is competing in only his fourth oval race. “On the (24-degree) banking you feel like Spiderman. I think we had a good run. You always want more as a driver. I pushed the pedal so far, I think I almost bent it. I hit the pedal hard. I was flat, flat, flat. There was no more in the car, so we can be happy. I got the maximum out of it.”

And more times than not, that’s the winning IndyCar formula at TMS. 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 5 2009
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