Wheldon gets off to fast start in Indy 500 practice

INDIANAPOLIS -- Dan Wheldon established himself as the favorite for pole position as the IndyCar Series' big-three teams dominated the action on the first full day of preparation for the 91st Indianapolis 500.

Cars affiliated with Target Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Green Racing ran 12 of the 14 fastest laps Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, led by Wheldon's 225.074 mph pace-setter. Penske's Helio Castroneves led five drivers in the 224 mph bracket.

"Big surprise, huh?" observed AGR's Tony Kanaan, who was fourth overall at 224.622 mph.

Kanaan was the day's busiest driver, because he turned laps in three different cars. Andretti Green asked its lead driver to shake down cars for his teammates Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion easily topped 222 mph in their similar Dallara-Hondas before finally settling into his regular 7-Eleven-sponsored entry.

"We wanted to try some different things and the best way to judge is to have one driver drive all the different cars," Kanaan said. "I'm the closest to Marco and Danica in the way I fit in the seat.

"We had a couple of things we wanted to try and we accomplished what we wanted to," he added. "We got a lot of work done today."

Some observers wondered if AGR asked a bit too much from Kanaan in terms of being a team player.

"It's easier to focus on your own stuff, but it's a team effort," observed AGR's Dario Franchitti, who was ninth fastest on Tuesday.

"If I was asked, I'd do it, and especially with the problems Marco had in the car at Kansas, it was good to have Tony get in his car."

Indeed, Kanaan's public test drive drew attention to young Andretti's recent struggles on ovals. He withdrew from the Homestead and Kansas races due to a bad-handling car and he crashed out at Motegi, Japan.

AGR hopes that a return to Indianapolis, where Marco had his breakthrough rookie IndyCar Series race a year ago and finished second to Penske's Sam Hornish Jr., will restore the 20-year-old's confidence. Marco was 11th fastest Tuesday, 0.1 mph slower than Kanaan in the same car.

"Yeah, he struggled," said Kanaan. "We're still trying to find the right setup so we're all starting in different ways setup-wise and I think he's getting the worst end of the stick for sure. He's not having a good time.

"We're going to try being a little bit more conservative with him from now on and he'll be good at Indy."

Wheldon downplayed the importance of winning the pole on Saturday, but he was above 223 mph on his third lap and the 28-year-old Englishman never slowed down.

"I think I must be getting old because I'm really not too concerned with Pole Day," he said. "Obviously I'd love to get the pole at Indianapolis, but I've been around enough to understand the big picture.

"You have to decide whether the pole is worth going for," Wheldon continued. "We'll have a good go on Saturday, but not if it's to the detriment of our race preparation. I'm going to be adamant about that with my team."

"We're not quite where we want to be, but it's early. Tony [Kanaan] is running well so we know we have the capability as a team."
-- Michael Andretti

Wheldon said he ran with a comfortable level of downforce and predicted a 232 mph pole speed.

"The car still ran good lap time and that's what you need for the race," said the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion. "I don't think anybody is close to being fully trimmed-out yet. If I was down to fully trimmed-out on the first day, Chip Ganassi would kill me."

Castroneves moved up to second fastest with his final hot lap of the day, while Tomas Scheckter provided the day's only real surprise by running 224.783 mph for third place in the lead Vision Racing entry.

Scott Dixon was fifth in the second Target/Ganassi car, edging Danica Patrick, the last driver over 224 mph. Seventh quickest was Ryan Briscoe in a Penske-prepared car run by Luczo Dragon Racing, while defending race champion Hornish was eighth at 223.670 mph.

Further down the order, Michael Andretti managed 222.646 mph for 13th place.

"We're not quite where we want to be, but it's early," said the AGR co-owner. "Tony is running well so we know we have the capability as a team."

Sarah Fisher's 220.143-mph lap in the AAMCO Transmission car put her 19th, one place ahead of Milka Duno. The Venezuelan sports car driver gained 3 mph Tuesday to top out at 219.830 mph as a total of 27 cars and 25 drivers participated.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.