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Kanaan best when it counted most

INDIANAPOLIS -- Danica Patrick was the fastest driver at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Pole Day. But not when it really counted, which allowed defending IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan to claim the top starting spot for the 89th Indianapolis 500.

Patrick, the 23-year old rookie who has taken the IndyCar Series by storm this year, flirted with 230 mph when she ran the fastest lap of the month during Sunday morning's practice session. And the last lap of her qualifying run, caught at 227.860 mph, was the fastest individual qualifying lap of the day.

Problem is, the Indianapolis 500 calls for four qualifying laps. And Danica's first one got off to a shaky start when she appeared to turn into Turn 1 slightly too early, causing her Panoz-Honda to have a nervous-looking wiggle. She quickly got things back under control, but that drama resulted in a disappointing 224.920 mph opening lap.

To Patrick's credit, she bounced back with three laps that topped 227 mph, including a 227.860 mph final lap that was quicker than eventual pole winner Kanaan's best individual lap of 227.821 mph.

Frustrated, Patrick initially wanted to make a second qualifying attempt. But common sense prevailed in the Rahal Letterman Racing camp and an exhausted Patrick, who has been the center of media attention all week, will start the May 29 race from the inside of the second row, having established herself as a legitimate contender for overall honors on race day.

"It was really frustrating because I wanted to be on the pole," she said, after securing the best starting spot for a female driver in Indianapolis history. "When you almost spin in Turn 1 on the first lap and lose 2 mph, it's a lot to make up. I was not expecting to turn right on my qualifying attempt, but we just missed [the setup] a little.

"It's important to keep in perspective the point I'm at," she added later. "I feel like I wasted a pole car, but then again, maybe I saved it. Looking back, I'm glad we didn't throw this time away."

The cool conditions of the morning practice session helped generate the fastest laps of the month, topped by Patrick's 229.880 mph. Dario Franchitti also crested 229 mph, while Kanaan, Vitor Meira and Sam Hornish Jr. all topped 228, Hornish's run giving hope to the Toyota faithful in the midst of a Honda onslaught.

Leadoff man Scott Sharp set the benchmark with a 227.126 mph average, then Kanaan was the third man to qualify and the Brazilian upped the ante to 227.566 mph. As the early leader, Kanaan settled in to watch his competition, secure in the knowledge that under Indy's new qualifying rules, he had two more runs in his pocket if he needed them during the next five-and-a-half hours.

"I think I pushed too hard too soon, but I'm pleased with my run," Kanaan said, while casting an interested eye toward Patrick's run as it played out on a closed-circuit television in the press conference room. "I don't know if it's going to be good enough to sit on the pole, but the car is running good and I could go out two more times and go quicker."

The rest of the run through the initial qualifying line had little drama. Helio Castroneves demoted Patrick to fourth by putting together a 227.077 mph run, while Franchitti disappointed with a 226 opening lap in a run that was ultimately waved off. In all, 19 drivers accepted qualifying runs during the first run through the line, which was accomplished with 3½ remaining on the clock.

Less than an hour later, another bit of Indianapolis 500 trivia was established when Penske Racing was the first team to take advantage of the new qualifying procedures. They withdrew Sam Hornish Jr.'s 225.874 mph average and sent the two-time IndyCar champion back out.

The gamble paid off because Hornish picked up 1.4 mph and vaulted from 10th to second. His first two laps were faster than Kanaan's target speed, but he dropped into the 226 mph bracket his last time around for a 227.273 mph average.

"We had to balance the risk and reward," Hornish said. "The car was awesome. I just wish we had more consistency over the four laps."

Asked if the team would again withdraw the car for another attempt at the pole, Hornish smiled and said, "I think once is enough."

The last of the 22 positions available Sunday was filled with 47 minutes to go, and a few minutes later, Cheever Racing's Alex Barron (219.958 mph) was the first driver bumped by the new qualifying format when Franchitti posted a 226.475 mph average, good for the inside of the third row.

But with 27 minutes left, the Scotsman's effort was withdrawn by Andretti Green Racing and Franchitti returned to the IMS oval for his third and final attempt. A 227.186 mph first lap would have put him on the outside of the front row, but Dario couldn't sustain it and his 226.873 mph average only moved him up one position to sixth.

Was it worth it?

"Absolutely," Franchitti confirmed. "We had a fuel pressure issue on our first run and the car was too nervous on the second run. I was going to take it and the next thing I knew the car was being pushed back into the line. When [IRL chief steward] Brian Barnhart leaned into the car [with final instructions], I said, 'I know. This is the third time I've seen you today.'"

Castroneves ran a series of 227 mph practice laps in the late afternoon, including a 227.9, and with just eight minutes on the clock, he forfeited his inside second row starting position and took his chances on improving. A 226.979 mph warmup lap bode well, as did a 227.330 opener. But like Franchitti, Castroneves lost speed throughout his four-lap run and his 226.927 mph average actually dropped him from fourth to fifth on the grid.

"I guess it was a gamble," said team owner Roger Penske. "But we asked Helio what he wanted to do and he was for it."

"I wouldn't have been able to sleep tonight if I didn't try," Castroneves added with a grin. "They can say there is drama in NASCAR, but this was drama."

Finally, as the clock ticked toward six o'clock in Indianapolis, Kanaan's agonizing wait ended and he was confirmed as the pole winner, joined on the front row by Hornish and Sharp.

Patrick, Castroneves and Franchitti were next up as half the drivers in the first two rows were involved in the bumping process. Though the Saturday rainout washed away the intended drama of filling 11 grid positions on each of the first two qualifying days, the revised format was judged a success, with interest focused on the top and bottom of the speed charts.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Pole Day was IndyCar Series championship leader Dan Wheldon's uncompetitive form. Earlier in the week, Wheldon spoke of what he called the 'Indy 500 blues,' and the Englishman definitely had a case of them Sunday, qualifying 16th at 224.308 mph.

"Extremely disappointing," Wheldon said. "We've gone from a car that couldn't not do a 225 or 226 mph lap to a car that can barely do a 225. My laps were flat out but we're not getting any speed out of the car."

But Kanaan saved the day for AGR by claiming his first Indianapolis pole and the $100,000 prize that accompanies it.

"It was a long day," Kanaan said. "It was nerve-racking for us, but I think it was exciting for the fans. The last 45 minutes were tough and I think I'll have to have my heart checked tomorrow.

"Being fastest today doesn't mean I have the fastest race car," he added. "I feel good, but now the real work starts."

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