Alex Tagliani had been fast all week (whenever weather permitted the practice sessions to go ahead), but still no one saw him coming. Everyone just assumed the Sam Schmidt Motorsports car would be brushed to one side once the big guns of Team Penske and Ganassi got serious.

In the end, Pole Day saw Penske and Ganassi get serious alright - only for them to fumble the ball, leaving Tagliani a very worthy if still surprising pole winner for the centennial Indianapolis 500.

"I think I'll be pinching myself until I go to bed," said Tagliani, understandably. "I wanted this one so bad!

"It's been an amazing team effort. We have a great group of people, and the additions with the other cars. I had good input from Townsend and Dan and it's been nice to work as a big group this week."

It was Sam Schmidt Motorsports' first Indianapolis 500 pole, in Schmidt's tenth year as a team owner and just months after he decided to move into IndyCar full time by buying out the FAZZT team of which Tagliani was a co-owner. "This is a reward for Sam as well," said Tagliani. "He got involved and helped to continue it. He's an amazing team leader and this is a great result for him. I hope there's more to come."

The polewinners' celebrations to one side, it was a moment of cold, hard reflection for the big guns who had failed to fire.

Ganassi's blunder had been the most public and the most embarrassing, when during the pole shootout they failed to give either of their two drivers - Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti - sufficient gas to get around the four laps of the Speedway that comprise a single qualification attempt. In Dixon's case the damage was limited, with Dixon losing pace on the final lap but still maintaining a high enough overall average to take second place on the grid alongside Tagliani.

It was far worse for Franchitti, who ran out of fuel much earlier in his qualifying attempt and consequently never set a time during the pole shootout, which means he will start from ninth place having previously been sitting in third place behind Tagliani and Dixon when showers caused the curtailment of the main qualifying activity for the top 24 positions.

Small wonder, then, that Dario was seen stalking back to his trailer with his helmet on, not wanting to speak to anyone. Finally word emerged via Twitter: "Well, that sucked!! Ran out of fuel ending the 3rd lap..... Didn't trim enough for a pole run but p3 was on... Again!!!" He did however add his congratulations to Tagliani and Sam Schmidt, as well as consoling with Dixon.

The usual format for the pole shootout had been amended by IndyCar officials on the fly after the showers cut short the main qualifying session by 23 minutes and threatened to cause the top nine pole shootout to be abandoned altogether. The track was dried with just enough time to fit it in - but limiting the drivers to just one qualification attempt each. It was this all-or-nothing late change that did for Dario.

Alongside Tagliani and Dixon on the front row next Sunday instead will be Oriol Servia for Newman/Haas Racing, showing that the team that many had believed was in terminal decline is back with a vengeance.

"The car was great. It felt better than I expected. I am just very, very happy with the car," said Servia. "We really thought we had a shot at a decent time, but you never know - you see some guys who were expected to be super-fast who were not. So it can happen to you. The winds changes; it gets warmer. I am just really happy."

It's the first time since 2005 that cars from three different teams are on the front row - the first time since 2004 that a Penske Racing car isn't among them - and shows just how wide open the race is going to be next week. Certainly far from the Penske/Ganassi grudge match everyone had assumed.

Penske's failure to fly was less dramatic that Ganassi's, but still extremely surprising. Will Power is their highest-placed representative and the only one of their three drivers to make it through to the pole shootout (Helio Castroneves is back in 16th, his lowest qualifying position in 11 starts) but Power could nonetheless only manage the middle of the second row in fifth place, sandwiched between Townsend Bell and Dan Wheldon - names that no one expected to feature so highly in the running order.

Despite being a former Indy 500 winner, and finishing second in the race in the last two years, many had expected Wheldon's return to the race in the Bryan Herta Autosport entry to struggle to even qualify, but in fact they put the big names to shame.

"To be honest, the speed is a testimony to this team," said Wheldon. "It's not me; the guys have done a fantastic job. I know what I want from the race car, and we're making it work. Being in a race car is what I love to do. My time off made me realize how much I love motor racing. I'm having a blast. We will be a force to be reckoned with."

Buddy Rice and Ed Carpenter were the other drivers to get through to the top nine shootout. Carpenter was ecstatic by his success, but careful not to get carried away: "It's great to be fact right now, but we have to keep our head in the game for the race. The competition is just so tough right now, but I think we have some confidence," he said. "I really didn't feel rusty at all out there. I really appreciated the fans cheering when I finished the run. At this place, that means a lot to me."

Carpenter's success means that the Sarah Fisher Racing team can now seriously consider running a second car in Bump Day; potential drivers said to be on stand-by for the chance include Buddy and Jacque Lazier. The team's previous best performance in Indy 500 qualifying was 21st in 2009 with Fisher herself at the wheel.

KV-Racing Technology were also celebrating after the not-inconsiderable achievement of getting all three of their main team drivers into the top 24 positions: Takuma Sato in 10th, EJ Viso in 18th and Tony Kanaan in a rather more vulnerable 23rd - and even their collaboration with SH Racing was successful when Tomas Scheckter qualified in 22nd.

"It's a great feeling for me to be standing here today already qualified," enthused Sato. "Last year, we had a moment on qualifying day. This is a terrific day for us. I appreciated the effort the team as given. They have done a terrific job."

"Those were some comfortable laps. We had a pretty stable car. I feel like we can trim the car a little bit more and find some more speed," said Viso. "We believe we achieved what we expected. It's been a great atmosphere with this team."

Despite finishing in the all-important top 24, Kanaan was rather more subdued, mindful perhaps of last year's bruising Bump Day trials and hence more aware than most that it's not over until the chequered flag falls on Sunday evening.

"It's not quite what we wanted. It's been weird. We haven't been able to find the speed, so if we're locked into the top 24 today, I think that's a good result for us," he said. "And after last year, nothing surprises me about this place anymore. For me, it doesn't matter where we start. On the first lap last year, I was 33rd. With 10 laps to go, I was second. It doesn't really matter."

Simona de Silvestro managed to finish in the top 24 as well, just behind Kanaan and effectively "on the bubble" going into Bump Day. Her success is all the more remarkable considering she was driving with the burn injuries to her hands sustained in a serious crash in the Thursday practice session.

"My body's shaking. I was pretty nervous out there. We didn't do many laps," she said. "A day ago, I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back in the car. I was really freaked out about it [especially when I was waiting to qualify] and they're showing your crash on the screen. It's like, 'Really? Thanks!'

"But I think I made the right decision to get back in, and the doctors have taken really good care of me."

It was not such a good day for other teams, with Andretti Autosport the most astonishing disaster zone on pit lane when it came to qualifying attempts. Only John Andretti - in collaboration with Richard Petty Motorsports - made the top 24, and it will be a battle for any of their four regular drivers to get in on Bump Day on current form - even Danica Patrick.

Meanwhile, Ho-Pin Tung is definitely out of the running following a heavy crash in the Dragon Racing car during his first qualifying attempt. Tung was sent to hospital for treatment, and after a CAT scan was diagnosed with a mild concussion - which automatically rules him out of high speed race cars for the next few days. It's unknown what the team will do regarding the #8 car, which in any case was surely too badly damaged to be repaired in time for Sunday.

The team's other driver, Scott Speed, did not take part in Pole Day after disappointing times on Fast Friday led the team to believe that more would be gained with an extra day to work on settings. There have also been rumours of rows between the driver and team, and there's still a question whether Speed will actually take to the track on Sunday at all.

Qualifying for the Indy 500 continues tomorrow from noon until 6pm, which will first see drivers who have not yet made the grid make qualifying attempts to fill up positions 25-33. After that, the 'bumping' begins, with the slowest driver on the grid deemed to be "on the bubble" and at risk of being bumped off the grid altogether by anyone not yet in the race who can set a faster time.

It certainly makes for an interesting, eventful and nailbiting day.

But Alex Tagliani will be floating above all of that. He doesn't have to worry about anyone bumping him this year. He'll be too busy pinching himself for the next few days instead.

Full Pole Day times available in the results section.



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