Bryan Herta Autosport's Alex Tagliani has fond memories of Texas Motor Speedway: last year he claimed pole here for the Sam Schmidt Motorsport team, coming off starting on pole position at Indianapolis. And this year he was able to repeat the feat again - in Texas if not at Indy - with a two-lap average speed of 215.691mph putting him into pole for Saturday evening's Firestone 550k.
Tagliani posted two laps of 24.2730s and 24.2965s for a total time of 48.5695s, in the first race of the 2012 season utilising the traditional oval qualification format: each driver going out in a pre-set order to run one warm-up lap followed by two qualifying laps that together provide the average lap speed and total combined aggregate time.
Marco Andretti had been one of the early runners to go top with a qualifying effort of 214.424mph (48.8564s), but he was soon displaced from provisional pole by his Andretti Autosport team mate James Hinchliffe posting a qualifying speed of 214.920mph (48.7438s).
Hinchcliffe held on to the pole until Ganassi's Dario Franchitti went fastest with an effort of 215.646mph (48.5797s). Penske's Will Power seemed on course to better that when his first run was two hundredths of a second faster than Dario's, but he couldn't sustain the pace on the second lap when he hit the rev limiter and instead settled into second place between Franchitti and Hinchcliffe.
"Just got the hard limiter," said Power afterwards. "Totally killed it. Otherwise, it would have been an incredible run."
Power was further bumped down by Franchitti's Ganassi stablemates Graham Rahal (215.554mph, 48.6003s) and Scott Dixon (215.331mph, 48.6507s) - who also both had rev limiter problems - and it looked as though the team had a firm grip on the top three spots for the start of Saturday evening's long-distance race.
But then Alex Tagliani came out to show them how to do it, claiming the top spot by a margin of just 0.0102s. His 2012 pole time of 215.691mph exceeded that of the 2011 benchmark of 215.186mph, proving that the new-specification DW12 IndyCar and engine was already proving a match for its long-running predecessor.
"It was good," said Tagliani, praising the new Honda engine that BHA had signed up for after negotiating a split from their original engine providers, Lotus. "I think we're there. It's looking good for the rest of the year. Since Indy, we're really strong."
While it was Tagliani's third series pole and his second consecutive one at Texas, it was the first time that Bryan Herta Autosport will start at the front of an IndyCar race.
Two cars failed to post laps within 105 per cent of Tagliani's pole speed. In JR Hildebrand's case, a mistake on his out lap meant that he had to put in "a serious save on warmup" in order to keep it out of the wall: "Our aero-balance just came in way off," he admitted afterwards on Twitter. "Got some work to do for sure for the race, but I'm sure we can make it happen."
The other driver who missed the 105 per cent mark was HVM Racing's Simona de Silvestro, with her Lotus engine still not delivering the raw power needed for oval races. While both de Silvestro and Hildebrand will still be able to start the race (unlike the equivalent situation in F1), any car that still does not meet the 105 per cent cut-off int he opening laps will be ordered to park on safety grounds - as happened to de Silvestro early in the Indianapolis 500 last month.
Josef Newgarden was not able to post any time at all, after his Honda engine failed in the earlier practice session and the team was still working to install a new one. He will start at the back of the field on Saturday along with de Silvestro, and Mike Conway will also start ten places back from the 8th place he posted in Friday's session because of an engine change penalty at Belle Isle last weekend.
There was considerable debate up and down pit road about the levels of downforce available to the teams at Texas, with opinion seemingly divided between those lobbying for less downforce on safety grounds and those frustrated that it meant less chance of overtaking and side-by-side racing.
"We're on a bit of a mission as drivers to try to improve the safety of the series," said Penske's Ryan Briscoe, one of those drivers wanting to reduce downforce in order to ensure that the race doesn't become dominating by pack drafting. "We want to make the right steps towards making it safer and get it away from having cars running right on top of each other."
The ability of cars to run closely together in packs was one of the factors deemed to have contributed to the disastrous fatal accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October, the last time that the IZOD IndyCar Series ran on a 1.5-mile high-banked oval track like Texas.
However, not everyone agreed with the approach.
"Everyone is freaking out about the pack racing," said owner-driver Ed Carpenter. "I'm lobbying hard for more downforce [or else] it's going to be a follow-the-leader, the most boring race we've ever had at Texas."
Rubens Barrichello - who posted a lap of 213.949mph (48.9650s) to claim 14th position on the grid for tomorrow's race - indicated that the drivers would meet with Beaux Barfield at the end of Friday to discuss the situation and hopefully agree a way forward.
But Dario Franchitti has experience of such situations in the past, and said, "Put 10 drivers together, they won't agree on anything," adding wryly: "Same as the owners."
There is a final practice session at 6.45pm local time, closer to the evening conditions that the race itself will actually be run in. That allows the teams and drivers to start setting up their cars for the cooler evening and nighttime conditions for the Firestone 550k. After that session, the circuit hosts this weekend's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Friday evening.Full qualifying times