Ganassi's Scott Dixon was celebrating his second pole position of the season after a lap of 1:38.3918s proved uncatchable even for this year's master of the road courses, Penske's Will Power, who had to settle for second place.
"It feels very special to be on the pole for the last race here at Motegi," said Dixon, who started from pole here in 2009 on the speedway circuit but who now becomes the only IndyCar driver in history able to say he's started from pole on the road course as well.
Dixon was delighted with pole, but said that he feared he was going to be beaten in the final seconds of the pole shootout after he found his own attempts to improve on his time were thwarted. "I was up on my quick lap from Q1 by two or three tenths but then I kept losing it in the last section here in turns 12, 13 and 14," he explained. "It was a bit frustrating but we just got it. I think it was by a few hundredths or a few thousandths of a second. We're on the pole and that's what counts!"
Will Power was also frustrated not to have been able to find those final few hundredths of the a second that would have put him on pole for Sunday afternoon's race: "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," he said. "I'm sure Scott was the same. We're all pushing for the quickest lap and at the end it was really close so front row is pretty good."
Given that the Saturday qualifying sessions hadn't gone particularly well, Power agreed that a front row start was actually a good recovery. "We were struggling for sure in the second practice today but we were able to get back on track and to wind up qualifying second is great."
And Power is particularly pleased to have such a wide margin over his championship rival Dario Franchitti. "Dario starting ninth is good for us, although a lot can happen in a race," pointed out Power, who will be starting from the front row for the ninth time in 2011. "We always try to put ourselves in the position to stay out of trouble and give us the best chance of winning.
The big surprise of round 2 had undoubtedly been the failure of Dario Franchitti to get through to the final six pole shootout. Although initially going top of the times during the ten-minute period, Franchitti was unable to then improve sufficiently to keep up with the rest of the field as times tumbled in the final minutes, and he will start from a disappointing ninth place with potentially huge significance to the championship battle between himself and Power.
"I just didn't put a lap together to make the Fast Six. That's about it," said a frustrated Franchitti. "Couldn't put a lap together and left it until the last one and made a mistake in turn 3, then Jakes went off in turn 9 in front of me, covering the track in dirt. It was a combination of those two things we missed the tenth and a half we were needing."
With Ryan Briscoe starting on the second row and Helio Castroneves on the third, Power also has a lot of friendly faces gathered close to him - and moreover as a safety buffer between him and Franchitti. The last time the Penske crew had this sort of edge was at Sonoma, when the three drivers flew in formation to propel Power to the win and give him the biggest points boost over Dario that they possibly could.
"With all three Team Penske cars qualifying in the top six, that's a good result for us and it's definitely good to be starting where we are for the championship," agreed Power. "Anything can happen in the race tomorrow, but we're right where we need to be."
Helio Castroneves may be expected to act as Penske's "rear gunner" repelling any comeback attempts from Dario, but Helio has his own ideas and has high hopes for the race for the #3: "The car was good in qualifying, but I think we will be even better tomorrow in the race," he said. "Our car is really good on older tires, so we should be in great shape to go after a win here tomorrow. It has been a year [since Castroneves last won a race, here on the Motegi speedway] and I am ready to get a win."
Outside the ongoing Penske/Ganassi face-off, James Hinchcliffe qualified in fifth for Newman/Haas, which while not quite living up to the promise of Saturday afternoon practice was nonetheless a good return to form after a difficult last outing.
"It's nice redemption after Baltimore, I was really upset that we didn't make it out of Q1 and had no good excuse other than myself," said Hinchcliffe, who started 15th in the street course race two weeks ago. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to do a good job [at Motegi]. The car was the best it's been all weekend. We kept tweaking it, and that's what I love about this team is they never give up. It's good to be back in the Fast Six."
His team mate Oriol Servia had a less rewarding day and failed to progress from the first round: "We had the speed but I messed up and am very mad at myself," he said.
"The whole day was really good. I was really, really happy with the team, the improvements we made to the Telemundo car and with my driving - everything. The morning was looking very good and qualifying was too." But then came a late session mistake: "I braked too late and locked the front tires up and it flat spotted the tire completely; it was gone. I screwed up and I am very upset because the last few road courses I haven't qualified that well for one reason or another and today we really had the speed. We were only two corners from completing the lap."
Andretti Autosport were another team with mixed fortunes, with Marco Andretti making it through to the Top 12 and ultimately qualifying in tenth place but all three of his team mates failing to make it through round 1.
"It's good to get the Venom car into the top ten on the starting grid, but we're still limited on grip," said Marco. "We're tipping the car over from oversteer to understeer too easily."
"We didn't have a good day. We've been struggling with the car all weekend and haven't found the answer yet," said his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay succinctly, who will start from 17th for the race tomorrow.
"We had some problems with the gearbox today; the Go Daddy car wasn't downshifting or upshifting properly," revealed Danica Patrick, who starts from 23rd. "Had everything shifted smoothly it still wouldn't have put us in the Firestone Fast Six, but it would have been nice to be a little higher on the grid.
"I feel like it's been a rough year with qualifying but the good news is my strength is race day. I guess if I had to choose between qualifying and race day I'd choose race day.
KV Racing Technology's Tony Kanaan was another driver to fail to make it out of round 1. "We missed this one by a whole lot ... There are no excuses, our qualifying effort was pathetic."
Actually there was
a pretty decent reason behind Kanaan's disappointing session, as he went on to explain: "Since the first practice we were having brake problems and instead of focusing on getting the car fast we were focusing on solving the brake issues. When the brake problem was finally resolved we did not get our setup right. Not once."
Kanaan will start from the back row of the grid for the race alongside HVM's Simona de Silvestro, who was taking a more upbeat view of things despite the poor grid slot. "We struggled this weekend but I'm confident that we'll be able to make up positions during the race," she said. "I really like the track here at Twin Ring Motegi ... It feels like a European race course and suits my style."
Joao Paulo de Oliveira managed to finish in the top six in his group in round 1 and make it into the Top 12, which was a good showing on his IndyCar Series début whatever advantage he might have received from his local knowledge of the road course circuit from his Formula Nippon races here.
"We have made some more progress and got the car working better on the red tires, so that was positive. On Q1 I got the most out of it and in Q2 I didn't quite get everything together," he confessed. "I'm still trying to figure out how to gain time on reds and without the experience I can't be too critical of myself. I think it was another positive day and we are moving forward."
Full qualifying times and details