NEWTON, Iowa -- The front row for the 2011 Iowa Corn 250 startled and surprised race fans from Joliet to Japan.
Tokyo native Takuma Sato became the first Japanese driver to qualify on pole position for an Indy car race. Of greater interest to mainstream America, Danica Patrick turned in her best qualifying performance since August 2007 and will line up on the outside of the front row.
But as the old saying goes, qualifying is one thing and the race is another thing completely. In that regard, both front-row occupants have their work cut out for them in Saturday night's 250-lap race.
Since the start of the 2008 season, 29 of 33 Izod IndyCar Series races staged on oval tracks have been won by drivers affiliated with Ganassi Racing or Penske Racing. Patrick was one of the anomalies, crossing the line first at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008 in a car fielded by the team now known as Andretti Autosport.
AA is responsible for three of the four non-Penske/Ganassi wins, with Tony Kanaan taking the other two. Kanaan now drives for KV Racing Technology as a teammate to Sato. Kanaan qualified third at Iowa, demonstrating that the team owned by Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven has its cars nicely dialed in for the Iowa oval.
Dan Wheldon's triumph last month at the Indianapolis 500 is the only other oval victory since 2008 from outside Indy car racing's two dominant teams.
So while the front-row pairing of Sato and Patrick makes for an interesting story, the odds are overwhelmingly against either one of them winning the race on Saturday night.
Sato's pole is the biggest surprise of the pair. The Japanese ex-Formula One driver had never competed on an oval track until last year, and his best career Indy car finishes to date are a pair of fifths, including two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway.
"It's a fantastic achievement," Sato said. "I knew we were going to be competitive because of last year [when he qualified seventh at Iowa but crashed in the race], and this morning I was truly comfortable in the car. I'm very pleased with today's result."
Patrick started from the pole three times in her rookie Indy car campaign in 2005, but she had the advantage of being one of a handful of drivers with a Honda engine. Since 2006, when every driver has been powered by Honda, her qualifying performances have not been as competitive.
With a front-row start at Iowa in the bag, this race may represent her last, best chance to win another Indy car race before her expected move to NASCAR in 2012.
"It feels really good to be in position to be able to start up front and have the opportunity for a solid race day," Patrick said. "I haven't started on the front row in a long time, so it's a good feeling.
"On short tracks like this it's nice to start near the front because you can gain ground more quickly," she added. "If you start near the back of the field you could be a lap behind very quickly."
The dominant Penske and Ganassi teams didn't have their best day in Iowa qualifying. IndyCar Series championship co-leaders Will Power and Dario Franchitti will start from the third row, and Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves qualified 10th and 13th, respectively.
Ganassi's Scott Dixon said he nearly crashed on his warm-up lap and his first qualifying lap and ranked 23rd in the 24-car field.
Yet many observers would contend that despite his qualifying travails, Dixon -- the 2008 winner at Iowa -- has a better chance of winning the race from the back row than Sato or Patrick do from the front row.
"That was a poor run, and I'm surprised we're not starting last, but this is a place where you can win from just about anywhere," Dixon said, citing Kanaan's victory from 15th on the grid in 2010.
In fact, Dixon scored his first (admittedly strategy-driven) Indy car victory after starting 23rd in a CART-sanctioned race at Nazareth Speedway in 2001.
The numbers don't lie, and it will be interesting to see if Sato, Patrick or anyone else in the field can break the Penske/Ganassi dominance on Saturday night.