Tagliani takes Indy pole in early qualifying
On a day each of the series' three top teams — Andretti Autopsort, Target Chip Ganassi and Team Penske — made big mistakes, it was a 37-year-old Canadian who got it right twice with a four-lap average of 227.472 mph on the day's final run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday.
One of Ganassi's drivers, Scott Dixon, will start next to Tagliani on the front row. Defending champ Dario Franchitti could have joined them had he not run out of fuel on the final qualifying lap. Spain's Oriol Servia will start third.
"I'm getting tired of the Penske and Ganassi domination, here especially at the 500," Tagliani said after the morning run that gave Sam Schmidt Motorsports the provisional Indy pole. "I think a lot of people are craving for it, and if we can do it, it would be nice."
He did it twice Saturday — once in the morning and again in the evening.
Meanwhile, the big boys struggled to keep up with Tagliani.
Seven drivers from the vaunted Andretti, Ganassi and Penske teams failed to make the field. Among them are three top Americans — Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Graham Rahal. Ryan Briscoe, one of two Aussies expected to contend for the pole, also failed to lock up a spot for the May 29 race.
The biggest bungle Saturday was Ganassi's fuel miscalculation.
After running three straight laps over 227 mph, Franchitti suddenly slowed down and wound up coasting back to pit lane. Ganassi threw his arms up in disgust just as Dixon, the 2008 winner, was about to take the track. Dixon also ran out of fuel in the final turn.
"He (Dario) ran out in one and I ran out just getting to turn four. I think that cost us the pole," Dixon said. "It was frustrating, and I think Dario's a little more ticked off than I am. You come so close and not quite get it, it was real frustrating."
A few minutes later, Tagliani capitalized by reclaiming the top spot he had held for nearly 6 hours. Dixon completed the four-lap run at 227.340 and was little consolation to Franchitti, who dropped from the front row to the outside of Row 3.
Franchitti wasn't the only member of the tough-luck club Saturday.
Brazil's Helio Castroneves missed out on an unprecedented third straight pole and wasn't even fast enough to make the day-ending shootout with the nine fastest qualifiers. Castroneves will start 16th, the inside of Row 6, his worst starting spot in 11 career races at Indy.
For Michael Andretti, it was even worse. He watched disbelievingly as all five of his drivers qualified near the back of the top 24 and then got bumped from the field. Some fans cheered when Patrick was knocked off the starting grid.
Patrick, Marco and John Andretti all failed to requalify on their second attempt, and it wasn't until John Andretti's third and final attempt of the day that the team finally put someone in the race by going 1 for 10.
Andretti's other four drivers will try to fill the remaining nine spots on the 33-car grid.
"It wasn't a Hail Mary," said John Andretti, who qualified 17th with an average of 224.981. "It was more like 'Here are the adjustments we made and the rain is at I-465, so let's go.'"
Tagliani was one of the few who followed the script.
He was among the fastest drivers all week, got a favorable draw and had the best qualifying attempts in both rounds.
Tagliani will now have the most prestigious achievement of his career — leading the centennial celebration field into the first turn at Indy. It comes just two years after he was bumped out of the field on the weekend's last qualifying attempt. He later took over for Bruno Junqueira in the cockpit of another car, started 33rd and was named Indy's 2009 rookie of the year.
"To do it here, and at this particular time, if you start here for the 100th, you won't do the 200th, it's special," Tagliani said.
Tagliani's jump to the top seemed fitting given how wacky the day turned out.
Australian Will Power is the only Penske driver starting in the top 15 but failed to win a fifth consecutive pole. He'll start fifth, the middle of Row 2.
Townsend Bell and Dan Wheldon, the 2005 Indy winner, will make their season debuts alongside the points leader. Bell will be on the inside, Wheldon on the outside.
Ryan Briscoe, thought to be a pole contender, may have had the worst day of all. He wrecked his primary car Saturday morning, then scrambled to get a backup car ready and was one of 16 drivers to get bumped. Three of them requalified.
Rookie Ho-Pin Tung also may have lost his chance at becoming the first Chinese driver to start the race because of a crash on his final qualifying lap. He was released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis with a concussion but hasn't been cleared to drive. Jay Penske's team also does not have a backup car for Tung.
The day included drama, too.
Swiss driver Simona De Silvestro, who sustained burns on both of her hands in a crash Thursday, received a standing ovation when she finally put the No. 78 car on the grid on her third and final attempt. Then, after moving back to the 24th spot, showers washed out the rest of qualifying except for the final attempts by the nine fastest drivers.
"My body was shaking," she said. "I was pretty nervous out there. A day ago, I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back in the car. This morning, I felt pretty good."
By the end of the day, it was Tagliani — not the drivers from the high-profile teams — who was feeling best.
"Everyone that came and cheered for us and bet on us, I'm happy we didn't make them lose money," Tagliani said. "But I've felt the pain and the sacrifice of this musical chair, pulling out of line and not going again. Here, I think it's a very good place to show that the team is strong."