Will Power's title hopes received a huge boost in Saturday early evening qualifying at a chilly Kentucky Speedway, when the Penske driver was able to put his #12 car into pole position with a two-lap time of 48.5848s (219.283mph), two tenths clear of Graham Rahal and beating the old qualifying record of 217.933mph set by Ed Carpenter last year.
"It was a great result for Verizon Team Penske today," said Power afterwards. "We've been working really hard and the team has done a lot of work on the car to get the absolute most out of it. This is a really good start to the weekend and it's good to get the point for the championship ... Hopefully we'll keep it going tomorrow and get a good result in the race."
While Power has been peerless on road courses this year and picked up seven pole positions already in 2011, this is the first time this year that he will start from the front of an oval race. He'll take the green flag alongside Graham Rahal whose time of 48.8028s was two-tenths slower than the pole time.
"I thought Will was going to be tough to beat, but I didn't see that kind of speed coming from him," admitted Rahal, who nonetheless will be hoping for a good race on Sunday.
The timing couldn't have been better for Power as the drivers head into the penultimate race of the season: not only does it give Will the bonus point for clinching pole, he will also start well ahead of Dario Franchitti who could manage only 11th place on the grid for the start of the Kentucky Indy 300 on Sunday afternoon.
Dario was frustrated by the lack of speed in the car this afternoon, following an emergency engine change during the afternoon after the original power unit was overheated during the practice sessions. The variable conditions during the session (which saw alternate bursts of sunny and overcast periods) may also have played a part in upsetting the handling of the #10 and a number of others during the hour-long session.
"We just didn't have the speed we did in the first session," Franchitti admitted, whatever the reason was. "I'm pretty upset with qualifying, it's not what we need to be doing. But the good thing is, being part of the Target Chip Ganassi team, we know we can rebound and we know we've got all the stuff to come back tomorrow."
There was also disappointment for Dario's Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon, who had easily topped both practice sessions during the day but could only manage seventh place in qualifying itself: "This morning in traffic we put up some good numbers and it feels good in that scenario, but obviously the way we qualified is not where we want to be," he said. "We'll do our best to overcome that and try to get to the front of the field in the first ten for sure, and we need to get around Will so he doesn't get the most laps led.
Similar changes of fortune hit Vitor Meira (second in the first practicesession, but only able to qualify in 21st) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (second in the later practice session, and who will start alongside Dixon on the grid from eighth position.)
"Qualifying didn't go like we thought so we'll just have to go back and figure out what happened, but the car was good in heavy traffic," stressed a disappointed Meira. "Last year we had a so-so qualifying run and had to race to the front so we will have to do it again tomorrow."
"We have been concentrating on the race setup for this weekend and I'm pleased with the direction we have gone so far," explained Hunter-Reay. "Sunday's race will be exciting with 29 Indy cars and the tight field. I think it is going to be a heck of a show."
Although Mike Conway put his Andretti Autosport car into 12th place alongside Dario for the start of tomorrow's race, it was generally bad news for the British contingent, with both Alex Lloyd and James Jakes struggling to find any pace in the Dale Coyne Racing cars. Jakes put in the slowest time of anyone who went out on track, although he will not actually have to start from the back row come the green flag on Sunday.
That's because two other Brits will be stuck there: Pippa Mann crashed the #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan car in a strange accident that saw the car snap left into turn 1 and hit the inside wall. Although Mann (only just back after a back injury sustained in a crash at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway) walked away unhurt, her car looked significantly more crumpled.
Dan Wheldon will also be starting from the back row, after his #77 Bowers and Wilkins Sam Schmidt Motorsports car failed technical inspection on a number of points, which could not be rectified in time to make a qualifying run. Wheldon is taking part in this week's race as a warm up for the IZOD World Championship race at Las Vegas on October 16, where he will be competing for a $5m prize but will be handicapped by having to start from the back row of the grid - making his starting position here ironically perfect for that purpose.
"We'll continue to work on it overnight," said the Indianapolis 500 champion. "I'd expected the field to be strong, but I didn't think about or even consider we'd be starting where we're starting."
Series newcomer, British former Indy Lights star Dillon Battistini, qualified in 25th position just ahead of Townsend Bell in his first-ever IndyCar qualifying session. "I am happy to get my first day of running at the race event under my belt today," he said after the run. "We ended up a bit off the pace we were hoping to achieve in qualifying, but we know which direction we want to take for the race. It's a long race tomorrow and I expect to be able to move up through the field with a solid race car set up underneath me."
Full qualifying times and positions