Rahal wins pole in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson topped the opening practice sessions for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix, no one took it too seriously.

After all, most of IndyCar's big names were just taking it easy Friday on the still-dirty temporary street circuit, waiting for things to get serious in Saturday's qualifying.

Surprise, surprise.

Rahal and Wilson wound up right where they were a day earlier, with the 20-year-old Rahal taking his first IndyCar pole on the same track where he pulled off a shocking victory in his series debut a year ago. And Wilson gave Dale Coyne Racing its best qualifying result ever in his first event with the traditionally midpack team.

"I guess this place treats me pretty well," said Rahal, who supplanted series rival Marco Andretti as the youngest IndyCar driver to win a pole a year after replacing Andretti as the youngest driver to win a major open-wheel race.

"It doesn't get any sweeter," Rahal said. "You grow up as a Rahal and you're meant to want to beat the Andrettis, that's just how it works and vice versa. You think of the two big names in open-wheel racing and those are them.

"But, to be honest, beating Marco is a great thing and it's always nice, but to be on pole you've got to beat everybody. That's what's more important to me. I want to go out there and win races. It's not nearly as satisfying beating him when we're 20th and 21st."

It was no contest Saturday, with Andretti qualifying 18th in the 22-car field.

The rest of the Firestone Fast Six in IndyCar's knockout-style qualifying were 2004 champion Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing, Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske, 2007 champion Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Will Power, Briscoe's new teammate, filling in at least temporarily for Penske while Helio Castroneves fights federal tax evasion charges.

Reigning series champion and preseason favorite Scott Dixon will start Sunday's race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn downtown course from eighth.

Rahal, the son of three-time open-wheel champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, and Wilson, the youngster's teammate last year, were both part of the difficult transition from the defunct Champ Car series to IndyCar last year following the unification of the two American open-wheel series just six weeks before the season began.

Wilson, who was ninth here and won on the road course at Detroit's Belle Isle last year, lost his ride with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing after the season and spent the winter in uncertainty. The deal with Coyne didn't come together until late February.

"This means a lot to me," Wilson said. "I feel like I'm proving I deserve to be here. It was a difficult offseason where I didn't know what was going to happen and I didn't know if I was going to be back in a car. It was very frustrating after the progress I've made over the years.

"Finishing second in the championship in Champ Car two years in a row and coming across and winning a race as a transition team, I felt we were showing well. It was just unfortunate circumstances that I was out of a drive. But the whole [Coyne] team is very motivated and we want to translate that into a podium finish tomorrow. But it's one step at a time."

The qualifying results Saturday gave some added credence to predictions by most of the drivers that competition in IndyCar will be the best it's ever been, even if the car count is down a bit from last year because of the economy and a lack of sponsors.

"It's going to be a fun year," Kanaan said. "The competition is going to make it much tighter. You saw that today."

Saturday was the first day that Firestone has provided softer alternate tires for qualifying and there were lots of strategic decisions on if and when to use the alternates or the harder primary tires.

"It was interesting to see other people play different strategies on tires," Kanaan said. "It's going to make the race even more interesting."

The rules now dictate that each car much use a new set of the alternates for at least two green flag laps during the race.

"It's going to be quite tricky to see what people are going to do," Kanaan said.

The alternate tires are only going to be used on the seven street and road courses on the 17-race schedule, but the season begins with two street circuits -- St. Pete and longtime Champ Car venue Long Beach.

Rahal considers that an advantage and an opportunity for the teams and drivers that transitioned from Champ Car, which was mostly a road racing series.

"Obviously, we want to make the most of these first two races," he said. "We're still way behind the big teams and, for us, it's important for us to get points on these two tracks. We've had success here in the past and the team has certainly had some success in Long Beach."