Ganassi cars elect to fight Hornish another day

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Ganassi Racing cars sat ready in their pits during the closing moments of Happy Hour, ready to make one more run.

In theory, the pole position for the 90th Indianapolis 500 was still up for grabs.

In reality, it was long gone. Gone for about five hours, eight hours, a day or a week. Take your pick.

At practically every interval during the month of May, Sam Hornish Jr. of Team Penske has owned the bragging rights of the top speedster at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Saturday he tied a red and white bow on it, parking his No. 6 Dallara-Honda in the pole position during a rescheduled Pole Day.

At 1:33 p.m., the two-time Indy Racing League champion claimed the prized spot with a four-lap average speed of 228.985 mph. It was a statement run, followed later by a statement from Ganassi: no thanks.

Ganassi veteran Scott Dixon's run of 226.921 mph before Hornish wasn't good enough. Teammate Dan Wheldon's 227.338 mph some 10 minutes after Hornish wasn't enough either. And that's all they had to say on the track, opting to sit idle up until the 6 p.m. end of qualifying.

"I would have liked to have made a [second] run," said Wheldon, who won last year's race for Andretti Green. "I don't know if I had anything for Sam today. In all honesty, we've been a step or two behind. There's not much more I can say."

During the rain-plagued month, Hornish's consistent speed has been remarkable. On all but one day, he has posted the fastest lap. On Friday, a rare good-weather opportunity in which the field put in their longest day of work, his 227.925 mph speed came at the end of a full 87-lap workday.

Then came Saturday morning, the real show of strength from the Penske entries. Two-time race winner Helio Castroneves posted a 228.838 mph mark, foreshadowing the second-place qualifying effort he would put up in the afternoon. All Hornish did was run a blazing 229.996, bringing the fans to their feet with the fastest lap of the month.

"It was just a great day for us," said Hornish after winning Penske's 13th Indy pole. "I can't imagine a much better day here than what I've had today."

Well, here's betting he can. Certainly his closest pursuers do, conceding the speed crown to Hornish but understanding the 500-mile race involves much more than hot laps.

"We've all talked as drivers that there will be a decent disparity [in speed], there already is -- Sam's got me by, what, three-and-a-half miles per hour? I guarantee you his race pace won't be three miles per hour ahead of me," said Scott Sharp, who qualified ninth for Delphi.

The race's recent history is filled with unfulfilled promise from pole winners -- Buddy Rice (2004) is the only winner from the pole in the last eight races -- and Hornish's 500 record is spotty at best. In six races he has not finished higher than 14th, with three races -- including last year's -- ending in accidents.

"I'd like to skip about six years walking out of here feeling like I couldn't drive the race car," Hornish said.

Certainly from a drama standpoint, fans will have to wait for May 28.

Saturday didn't have it, Hornish's performances excepted. After the rainout of last weekend's Pole Day and second qualifying day, the third was supposed to be enhanced by the qualifying of all 33 spots and full-field bumping.

Instead only 32 cars were put on the grid, and only four took late-afternoon qualifying runs. Dario Franchitti had to re-qualify after a waved-off first effort due to engine trouble, and he qualified a disappointing 17th with an Andretti Green car that was a top-10 car during practices.

Rookie Townsend Bell was the lone driver to pull his car out of the grid, scratching his 16th-place original effort and moving up just one spot, to 15th. The two other late-day runs were last-row efforts from P.J. Jones and rookie Arie Luyendyk Jr.

With such little suspense from those runs, eyes were focused squarely on the Penske and Ganassi pits. Castroneves was belted in, prepared to defend his No. 2 spot on the grid. Hornish, after sitting on his rear wheel for a while, started signing autographs before the checkered flag.

The Ganassi cars sat still. They'll wait to chase a bigger prize.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com