Birthday boy Helio Castroneves gave himself the best possible early birthday present Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speed with pole position for the Indianapolis 500.
The Penske man, who returned to action less than a month ago after being acquitted in his tax evasion trial, withdrew his third quickest time for another run at pole and was rewarded with top spot on the grid and the $100,000 prize.
This was the third Indy 500 pole for the personable Brazilian, and twenty-seventh career pole, - more than any other IRL driver. It's also the fifteenth Indy 500 pole for team owner, Roger Penske, more than any other car owner. If Castroneves goes on to win, then Penske can change his vanity license plate from WON INDY 14 to WON INDY 15.
"It's magic, man,” Castroneves said. “The car came basically out of the truck ready to go. After everything we have been though lately, this is just incredible. I just have to thank my team, Roger (Penske), Tim (Cindric), my family, my girlfriend and everyone who has had faith in me. This is what I know. Racing is my life. Our cars have been extremely strong since we arrived here. Today was about finding the 'edge'. If the car feels too good, then it's not fast enough. We were able to squeeze every bit of speed out of the car today.”
The funniest comment out of Castroneves' conference came from Tim Cindric, Penske Racing President, after several questions about
Castroneves court battles. Cindric said that 'Helio's English has improved hanging out with all those attorneys'.
Ryan Briscoe was runner-up and his consolation prize was a PEAK cheque for $25,000.
"I thought I was going to have a shot at the pole then and just couldn't get it done,” he said. “We tried. You can't say we didn't try. We knew we had speed. I didn't go as fast as I was expecting. I felt confident that I was going to be able to at least defend my position. And I really thought I had a shot at getting the pole, but it didn't work out. I think the track got quicker. When we went into that qualifying run, I would have liked to have had a couple more practice runs. I knew I had a fast car, and I knew I was going to have a shot at it. So far, the Team Penske cars are looking pretty good. We've been solid all month. We tried to go out and get (the pole) back, but we couldn't get it done at the end of the day.
“It was just an unbelievable qualifying run by Helio (Castroneves) and Team Penske. He must be on top of the world at the moment. But I tell you, for me, second place at the Indy 500, second front row in a row, it's a great feeling, and I'm just so happy to be here. I know I've got a good car going into this race in a couple of weeks, and I just hope we can have a solid run, be at the front all day long and have a shot a winning this 500."
Third fastest qualifier, Dario Franchitti received a PEAK $10,000 cheque.
This year's 11-car field average speed was 223.579 mph. Last year's 33-car field average speed was 222.302 mph. There are three past Indy 500 winners in the top 11 cars - Castroneves, Franchitti and Scott Dixon, who will start fifth. Both Franchitti and Dixon are also past IRL Champions.
Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Mario Moraes, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Danica Patrick and Alex Lloyd also secured their grid slots for the race – the latter surprising many in his first race outing for a year.
Dan Wheldon missed out after a crash in the #4 Panther Racing car, while Nelson Philippe went into the wall during practice and will now look to qualify next week. Robert Doornbos will also look to qualify next week after damaging his back-up car. The Dutchman had already damaged his main race car during a practice accident.