Briscoe hoping to make more Penske history at Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- Ryan Briscoe landed on an intriguing row for the 92nd Indianapolis 500.

To his immediate left is Dan Wheldon, a driver who stepped into the car Briscoe once drove for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. On the far left is Scott Dixon, who was a teammate to Briscoe in a long and, quite literally, painful 2005 season.

Of course, this is the front row, the significance of which isn't lost on Briscoe. The third-qualifying Australian, in his third Indy 500, is in a Team Penske car. From that position, in that ride, a driver is expected to do something special.

Perhaps Briscoe can, considering it is pretty special for him to be here at all.

Outside Dario Franchitti's win in the rain at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Briscoe was one of the best success stories of last year's Indy 500, finishing fifth in a one-off deal with Luczo Dragon Racing. It was essentially a satellite Penske operation, part-owned by Roger Penske's son Jay, but a late-developing one that Briscoe jumped into despite not having run an IndyCar Series race since a four-race stint in 2006 for second-tier Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

"I hadn't been driving Indy cars for a while, so I had to get in and get myself right up to speed straightaway and feel comfortable in the car with not a lot of practice," said Briscoe, 26. "But at the same time I wasn't expected to win. I was expected to go there and do a solid job."

He did, in effect passing a test for Roger Penske. The 14-time Indy 500-winning owner hired Briscoe at the start of 2007 for his American Le Mans Series team, then threw his hat in the ring when the Luczo Dragon project came together. If the iconic No. 6 that Sam Hornish Jr. drove would be available at season's end -- and as the season wore on it became one of the worst-kept secrets in motorsports -- Penske would need a new man. What better place to look for one?

"With him coming in last year and being able to run at this track, that was a test really for us to say, 'Can you get back in the car? Can you run 500 miles? Can you stay out of trouble?'" Penske said. "That was really kind of a report card for Team Penske to say, 'Is this a guy we want to bring on?'"

The grade on that report card was an "A," the first of Briscoe's career in Indy cars and really his only until last weekend's Pole Day, when he landed on the front row with a four-lap average speed of 226.080 mph.
Briscoe began in the IndyCar Series in 2005 with Ganassi after four years of Formula series driving in Europe and struggled mightily, crashing out of the season's first three races and recording only one top-10 in the first eight -- a 10th place at Indy. His best finish was an eighth at Nashville, Tenn., and he closed the season as he started it, with three accidents.

The last one, at Chicagoland Speedway, was an airborne disaster ending in a catch fence and left Briscoe with numerous injuries including two broken clavicles. He needed two months of rehabilitation.

At the start of 2006, his Ganassi job had been handed to Wheldon, the 2005 Indy 500 and series winner. Briscoe spent the season taking rides anywhere possible, from A1 Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, Calif., to endurance racing at Bathurst, Australia. He also ran the four IndyCar races for D&R, peaking with a third place at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and even a pair of Champ Car events for RuSPORT, replacing the injured Cristiano Da Matta.

After a year like that, he jumped at the chance to drive full time for Penske, even in ALMS.

"Coming from open wheel, it was taking a step back in sports cars," Briscoe said. "But I think it was pretty clear that I was really happy to take a step back to be with Penske; it could open so many doors."

It did last year at Indy, then again at season's end when he was named to take the No. 6 Dallara-Honda.

Briscoe didn't bring back memories of Hornish at the start of this season, crashing out of the first two races in Florida, finishing a lap off the pace in ninth at Motegi, Japan, and taking seventh at Kansas. But the month of May is a season unto itself, and Briscoe hit the ground running here, all the way onto the front row of the grid.

"We'd been sort of getting momentum, but also when you come here, you kind of reset and treat this as its own little championship race. You throw a lot of things out the window and focus solely on Indy," Briscoe said. "This is what it's all about for [Penske], and I saw our first four rounds this year as really being preparation for Indy, especially for me being new to the team. It's all about getting solid races in and getting the experiences."

He certainly fell into an experience as a teammate of Helio Castroneves. To be the two-time 500 champion's teammate this season and especially this month is to be practically invisible, with all the residual attention Castroneves receives from a 6-month-old television dancing title. Castroneves' calendar is booked solid for May; Briscoe's was open enough to allow for downtime this week at home in North Carolina while the speedway was closed.

"I've always got a lot of stories to tell [of Castroneves]," Briscoe says with a laugh. "But he's been a fantastic teammate, he made me welcome within the team. When it comes down to business, he's right on it. He's a competitor, he wants the best out of his equipment and himself, and that reflects on the whole team and myself."

Castroneves knows the Penske way. Briscoe is learning, and qualifying on the front row at Indianapolis is a start. But the biggest test is race day, and fifth place isn't a passing grade anymore.

"The expectations have changed a little now that I'm experienced and with the 'A' team," Briscoe said. "Now there's a different kind of pressure where we need to perform and try to win this thing. I much prefer this situation."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.