Despite not making the Indy Racing League's inaugural trip to the Richmond International Raceway last year the Marlboro Team Penske steamroller continued on a cloudy Friday night in Virginia as Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves claimed a crucial front row clean sweep for the SunTrust Indy Challenge.

Those Indy Racing League teams who were hoping to capitalise on Team Penske's relative lack of experience at the three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway came away sorely disappointed after Friday's MBNA Pole Qualifying session.

Gil de Ferran, who completely dominated proceedings last time out at Pikes Peak International Raceway, came within thousandths of a second of breaking the 15-second barrier on the resurfaced track as no less than 19 drivers bettered Jaques Lazier's 2001 pole mark.

De Ferran stopped the clocks in a best time of 16.0043-seconds on the fastest of his two qualifying laps in his Dallara-Chevrolet, seven hundredths of a second quicker than teammate Helio Castroneves who will start on the outside of the front row.

De Ferran's average speed of 168.705mph represents an improvement of nearly ten miles per hour over Lazier's time one year ago.

Starting third and continuing his relentless chase of the runaway Penske bandwagon will be Panther Racing's Sam Hornish Jr in a repaired Dallara-Chevrolet following a practice accident.

The defending IRL Champion was one of three drivers to make contact with the outside wall at RIR in practice as the track's new sealer, such a point of contention when the Winston Cup came to town, once again reared its ugly head. Many drivers claimed that the track was very slippery just out of the racing groove, which will make Saturday's 250-lap race very interesting as lapped traffic will be especially difficult to negotiate.

Beck Motorsports' Robby McGehee, 310 Racing's George Mack and Kelley Racing's Scott Sharp all found the limits of their machinery in practice on Friday with McGehee lightly damaging his Dallara-Chevrolet before qualifying 16th and Sharp somehow managing to stay off the wall after spinning coming off turn four. He went on to qualify sixth.

Less lucky was Mack who severely damaged his G Force chassis after crashing coming off turn two and he will start at the very back of the 22-car grid on Saturday night as his team failed to prepare the secondary car in time for qualifying.

Defending Richmond Champion Buddy Lazier will start in fifth spot, a position he has won from on five occasions while Laurent Redon pulled out the surprise of qualifying by setting fourth fastest time.

Sarah Fisher qualified 15th on her return to the IRL while her Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammate Robbie Buhl continued to struggle with his G Force-Infiniti and qualified only 20th. In similar problems were Red Bull teammates Eddie Cheever and Tomas Scheckter who set 17th and 18th fastest times respectively.

 

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