In first qualifying with new IndyCar knockout rules, Kanaan takes pole

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sitting on stage Saturday after qualifying for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves looked to their left and there, appearing quite comfortable in their new surroundings, were former Champ Car drivers Will Power and Justin Wilson.

"I guess we better get used to this," said longtime IRL IndyCar Series star Castroneves, the two-time defending winner of the St. Pete street race. "These guys are very good road racers. They're not up in front because they're lucky."

It's only the second event of the new unified era of American open-wheel racing, with Champ Car melded into the IRL and nine newcomers among the 26 drivers racing here. And with the more familiar surroundings of a street course -- after last week's rough introduction to oval racing -- the transition drivers had a better chance to show their talent.

While former IRL champion Kanaan won the pole in IndyCar's new grueling three-session qualifying format, Power took the outside spot on the front row and Wilson was third, sharing the second row with Castroneves. Ryan Briscoe was fifth and Ryan Hunter-Reay sixth on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn downtown circuit.

Saturday's qualifications were the first to be held with the new IndyCar knockout rules.

The entries randomly were split into two groups that ran for 20 minutes each, with the top six drivers in each session moving on to a combined 15-minute second session. Of those 12 cars, the fastest half-dozen then moved into the Firestone Fast Six for a 10-minute shootout.

"It was tough," Kanaan said. "At one point, I think it was Helio and me and Briscoe, we were all together and trying to get away from each other and nobody was catching anybody. Those guys on my left here definitely step up our game and it's pretty nice to see them back with all the struggles they had last week [at Homestead].

"It's great to have everybody together and, you know, it's been a while since I've had blisters on my hand because of a qualifying run. I remember my engineer talking [to me] after I had my fastest lap. He said I had one more to go. I said, `No, I don't,' because I had nothing left."

Castroneves shook his head and said, "Wow! Do we have a race tomorrow? Because I'll tell you, it was a race today. It was pushing the limit, trying to find space as well. ... It was very, very difficult. ... And this was just a little taste of what it's going to be like tomorrow."

Power was surprised but happy to be starting from the front row in Sunday's 100-lap race.

"I think, with the way the rules are, I knew that we'd be close, and also we're used to road courses and street courses," the Australian driver said. "I would have been disappointed if I wasn't in the top 10.

"But, when I got here, it was just very similar to Champ Car the way you work it out. Once you got the balance in the car, you drive it fast and you get a lap time, and that's what we did. [I'm] very happy, though, to be on the front row. I'm not sure we expected that."

Wilson, who has been among the fastest drivers here since the beginning of practice on Friday, said he enjoyed the unique qualifying format.

"You have to be fit, but it's also very mentally taxing to go through that emotional roller coaster three times," Wilson said. "It was fun to keep going and keep having to push yourself to the limit."

As for qualifying third, the Englishman said, "It's kind of what we were hoping for. But to be this competitive straightaway is kind of a dream come true considering what we've been through over the last month. I expected to take a little bit longer to get up there, but hoped we had the capabilities."

Hunter-Reay, who also raced in Champ Car, said he wasn't surprised by the qualifying efforts of the newcomers, who also include Oriol Servia, Graham Rahal and Franck Perera in the top 12.

"What's amazing is how thick this field is right now," Hunter-Reay said. "You make the smallest mistake, lock the wheels in one corner and you don't get that perfect lap in, and all of a sudden you're 12th or 13th. It's amazing. But this is the way IndyCar should be and I'm happy to be up here with these guys."

The biggest surprise Saturday may well have been the disappointing qualifying efforts of Homestead winner Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dan Wheldon and Kanaan's Andretti Green Racing teammate Danica Patrick, with only Wheldon making it into the top 12.

"Obviously, it will make things a bit more challenging for ... tomorrow based on our starting spot," said Dixon, who qualified 13th. "But we'll be doing everything we can to pick off one position at a time and move up the grid."