Takuma Sato surprises in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Auto racing's longest offseason got a little longer, but it was worth the wait, as the Verizon IndyCar Series put on an entertaining qualifying session for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC).

With the 1.8-mile street course still drying from a 3-hour, 40-minute rain delay, Takuma Sato earned the first pole of the 2014 campaign for A.J. Foyt Racing and Honda.

The inclement weather sent fans scrambling to find shelter in the Mahaffey Theater and nearby parking structures, where kids created makeshift soccer games with empty water bottles. Meanwhile, IndyCar Series drivers had fun replicating Bradley Cooper's viral star-studded selfie from the Academy Awards, while their crew members killed time waiting for a decision on whether qualifying would be run. The session eventually started at 5:40 p.m.

Sato's fourth career IndyCar pole came at a track where he showed some speed last year, when he qualified on the front row and finished eighth. The Japanese driver went on to win the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and led IndyCar's race in Sao Paulo, Brazil, into the last lap, but his performance trailed off in the second half of the season.

This year, Sato and the Foyt team are off to an even stronger start, and they vow to produce pole-winning performances like Saturday's on a more consistent basis.

"I knew we had a strong package from last year, when we qualified on the front row," Sato said. "So it was just a matter of getting the balance and tuning to the 2014 spec, which we had a lot of changes.

"Today had such excitement in the qualifying session, with a lot of condition changes. I'm really, really pleased. My guys did a super job."

Even after the heartbreaking last-lap defeat to James Hinchcliffe at Sao Paulo, Sato led the IndyCar Series point standings heading into the Indianapolis 500. No one could have predicted that a seventh at Milwaukee would be his only other top-10 finish in a disastrous second half that included seven consecutive finishes of 20th or worse.

Team boss Larry Foyt made no major changes but identified areas for improvement heading into 2014.

"I think last year we experienced a very positive side, and not so," said Sato. "As you can see, in the second half of the season, we struggled. But we really bonded together. No one doubted our potential. It was just keep working. We have 100 percent the same members from last year to this year. That really gives us strength."

Tony Kanaan spun during the Firestone Fast Six session but kept his Chevrolet engine running to qualify on the front row in his Target Ganassi Racing debut.

"That was a heck of a qualifying," Kanaan said. "Front row, man ... it feels pretty good! It's been a long time since I made it to the top six. My guys have been working so hard over the winter, and I have to thank Chip [Ganassi], Target and the boys for this.

"But it's not even half the battle. It's just qualifying. You still have to make it to Turn 1 tomorrow, but it definitely feels good not seeing 16 or 17 cars in front of me on the start."

Kanaan emerged from the first qualifying group, which saw its 15-minute session interrupted twice by red flags that will result in former St. Pete winners Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe starting from the back.

The Brazilian was aggressive from the start of qualifying as he sought to make a statement in his first race for Ganassi.

"A lot of people made a lot of comments over the years because we struggled so much in qualifying in street and road courses and nobody was counting on that," Kanaan said. "I like the element of surprise. Nobody was talking about us at Indy last year and nobody was talking about this weekend."

Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified third for Andretti Autosport as the top six were evenly split between Honda and Chevrolet engines. Three-time St. Pete pole winner Will Power was fourth in his Team Penske Chevy.

"I did my best there in the Fast Six, but Sato was leagues ahead of everyone else," Power remarked. "The rest was kind of close. Not bad, but we have a bit of work to do."

IndyCar's knockout qualifying format served up its usual dose of surprises. The big shake-up came in Group 2, when Carlos Munoz, Jack Hawksworth and Saavedra advanced while Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson and Juan Pablo Montoya were shut out.

Montoya will start 18th in his return to IndyCar racing after a 13-year absence.

"It is what it is," Montoya said. "I haven't driven in wet conditions in a long time and we never had an opportunity to do it in testing. I don't think we're that far off. We are definitely making progress. I could have tried a bit harder, but it wasn't worth putting in in the wall."

Munoz, who finished second in the 2013 Indianapolis 500, will start seventh for Andretti Autosport in the first race of his first full-time season in Indy cars. Hawksworth, an Indy Lights graduate, will line up eighth for his first IndyCar Series start for Bryan Herta Autosport.