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Bryan Herta is best at the end, taking the pole for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in a 10-minute shootout.
By BRANT JAMES
Published April 3, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - After 85,724 consecutive left-hand turns, the Indy Racing League goes right today. The red, yellow and black No. 7 Dallara-Honda will lead the way after Andretti Green Racing's Bryan Herta, a veteran street racer from his CART days, won the pole on Saturday for today's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first non-oval race in the IRL's 10-year history.
Helio Castroneves, while sensing the history of the moment, will be ready to race by the time his No. 3 Dallara-Toyota pulls off of pit road and sidles alongside on the front row. And if Herta would be so kind, he'd like to know how he's going to play it.
"Are you going inside or outside?" he pondered.
Conventional wisdom suggests the top six qualifiers on Saturday will have the inside line on victory. Passing opportunities are precious on street courses, even ones such as St. Petersburg, which drivers contend is more generous than most. Cars often will be strung out in long lines in the 100-lap event, seeking an opportunity to advance.
"It's very important to start in the front, but honestly, I think mistakes are going to happen," said defending series champion Tony Kanaan. "People are going to fall off probably, so you've got to keep it on the track. Sometimes with some of the strategies people play they can still drive from the back without passing any cars. Obviously, we'd like to be in the front because it's a better place to be, but I would say it's open right now. The track, it's a very difficult racetrack. A first street-course race for everybody and everybody is allowed to make a mistake. So the guy who (doesn't) make the last mistake will win."
The drivers on the first three rows - Herta, Castroneves, Andretti Green Racing teammates Kanaan and Dario Franchitti, rookie Tomas Enge (in the only Chevrolet in the top six) and Sam Hornish - would be expected to be less-mistake-prone. All but Hornish have thick street/road-racing backgrounds.
But that's not necessarily the case, either, Kanaan said. The winner could come from deep in the field.
"I think it could be anyone," he said. "It might not be someone in the top six who might have a good car and later in the race they could be leading. ... One guy could take the six right out in the first corner and then we are all out - it's over."
Herta hopes to get a good enough jump to avoid all that, and his entry looked plenty fast enough on Saturday. He won his second pole in as many races, but had to triumph in a new qualifying format on street/road courses to do it. After single-car qualifying for all 21 cars, the top six contested a 10-minute session.
Five of the six changed positions in the session, with two - Kanaan and Herta - improving. Herta jumped from fourth to first with a best lap of 103.664 mph, swapping places with Franchitti, who had the top single-lap speed (102.794 mph) entering the final session. Cars were sent off in 10-second intervals, and the only time anyone got remotely close was as Kanaan entered the course and had to brake as Franchitti completed his first revolution.
Castroneves bumped Franchitti off the pole at 103.360 mph on his fourth lap, but Herta passed both on his fifth lap. Castroneves came into the pits after taking the lead, but popped back out when Herta surpassed him and raced until time expired.
"I went out and kept pushing pushing and once I did the 62.6 (-second lap) ... I should have kept going but I stopped," said Castroneves, who had the top time in practice Friday. "I should have kept going I guess, but it's one of those things where it ain't over until the fat lady sings ... or until Bryan comes out. I kept pushing, pushing, but I'd rather be second instead of sixth."
Herta, meanwhile, pulled in with three minutes left and waited.
"I actually made a couple mistakes and got away with something here in one of the fast corners and almost had a problem," Herta said, "but I was able to regroup and get going and put together one last lap and it was a great lap. I don't think I could make up any more time anyway so I was hoping it was going to be good enough and it was, so now we have to worry about (today)."
Which includes that first right turn, a spot Kanaan hoped out loud on Friday would not become a "Cleveland corner" in reference to the notorious Turn 1 hairpin at a Champ Car venue that has been the site of early wrecks as recently as last season.
"It's going to be tough," said Castroneves, who was taken out in a 1998 Turn 1 melee at Cleveland. "The first three quarters of the race I don't think anyone will try to be stupid enough to make a bowling alley of the first corner. Hopefully, it will be smooth and get the race going and make a good show."