Ed Carpenter tops Meijer Indy 300 grid

SPARTA, Ky. -- The Izod IndyCar Series closes its season on four 1.5-mile ovals. But if you think they're all the same, just check out the grid for the Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway.

Driving a car co-entered by Panther Racing and Vision Racing, Ed Carpenter earned his first career IndyCar pole position. Meanwhile, Hideki Mutoh and rookie Bertrand Baguette qualified in the top six, and last year's Kentucky winner, Ryan Briscoe, qualified ninth, two places ahead of defending series champion Dario Franchitti.

The fastest Andretti Autosport entry was Marco Andretti in 15th, and Milka Duno ran faster than former series champion Tony Kanaan.
However, TK fared better than teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who smashed into the Turn 2 wall during his qualifying attempt.

It's not like Carpenter's pole is a complete surprise. After all, he finished an oh-so-close second to Briscoe at Kentucky a year ago, and his Panther teammate Dan Wheldon will start third in Saturday night's 300-mile race. But it's rare when a driver and team running a part-time schedule successfully topple the mighty Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing dynasties.

"Looking at all the different downforce levels we saw on people coming out for qualifying, I didn't know where we would be," Carpenter said after his 217.933 mph run. "When Dan went out a couple cars ahead of me and put up a big number, I thought we'd be in good shape."

The second-place finish at Kentucky in 2009 was Carpenter's career best. But a lack of sponsorship prompted primary Vision Racing owner Tony George to park the team for most of 2010. Thanks to funding from Fuzzy's Premium Vodka, this will be Carpenter's third race of the season.

"I'm not ready for my career to be over," Carpenter said. "I'm having a lot of fun, trying to maximize my potential in the limited schedule I'm doing."

Championship leader Will Power qualified second for his 11th front-row start of the season in 15 chances. Power leads Franchitti by 23 points with three races to go.

"There was a lot of wind out there and pretty low grip," Power said. "But it's good for us to start on the front row. We need a good result on a 1.5-mile oval, or to at least finish ahead of Dario to keep that points lead."

The bumpy surface at Kentucky Speedway appeared to contribute to Hunter-Reay's accident. He wiped off the left side of his Izod-sponsored car after a bump appeared to snap the car into a spin.

The bumps are part of Kentucky's character and many drivers feel there is no need for the 11-year-old track to be resurfaced.

With just 14 degrees of banking in the turns, Kentucky is significantly flatter than most 1.5-mile tracks, and many drivers believe that the circuit's unique layout compared to other 1½-mile tracks has contributed to the excellent racing the IndyCar Series has enjoyed here over the years.

"It's tougher to pass than most tracks because there's only two lanes and it's pretty bumpy," Carpenter said. "It's a great layout, and we've had great racing for years because the layout isn't like every other place."

"It doesn't create that pack racing," added Power. "You actually have to drive the thing around here. If they add a heap of banking like they're talking about, that's all for NASCAR, and it wouldn't be great for our cars.

"There aren't that many oval tracks left that are good for Indy cars. So just keep building these flat tracks!"

Franchitti was fastest in the morning practice session, but he was hampered by an early draw and track conditions that changed markedly prior to qualifying, with sunny skies and a brisk wind. Teammate Scott Dixon qualified fourth.

Last year's Kentucky race was the first using modified aerodynamic rules that allowed teams more flexibility in adjusting their cars. The Ganassi team, which has won 16 of the previous 26 IndyCar oval races, got it wrong last year by running an ultra-low drag setup, and Franchitti and Dixon were uncharacteristically uncompetitive on the way to finishing sixth and seventh.

Despite qualifying on the second row, Dixon still was not totally pleased. "At the start of the run, the car was extremely loose and we still had a lot of driving to do," he said. "We made a few changes after Dario's run, but qualifying is tough. Last week in Chicago, we don't know what happened during qualifying or why.

"There are strange things that can happen at these places."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.