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Details drive Dario to pole

Noticing the little things makes a difference for Dario Franchitti, who starts first in today's race.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 2, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Dario Franchitti has earned a certain reputation on street and road courses. Simply put, he's very good on them. Ten wins in the former CART series prove that.

But as much as Franchitti would like his peers to think he comes naturally by this ability to cajole his Andretti Green race car through tight turns and over bumps, there's more to it: Homework. After hours homework.

Hours after Franchitti's Honda went airborne during a Grand Prix of St. Petersburg practice session - which he still led - on Friday, the 32-year-old Scot was out on the course on a scooter studying his launching point under a pedestrian bridge between Turns 6 and 7.

Grand Prix vice president Tim Ramsberger happened by in his van. He stopped to see what was up, whereupon Franchitti gestured to a patch of recently ground pavement.

"Tim," Franchitti asked, "did you do some work here?"

Indeed, track workers had.

Speed is in the details for Franchitti, and a day after topping the speed charts, he led single-lap qualifying and the ensuing six-car European-style session to earn the pole for today's Grand Prix.

Franchitti improved his one-lap time over the 14-turn, 1.8-mile course to take the pole officially in a series track record 1 minute 2.2753 seconds (an average of 104.054 mph).

Scott Dixon jumped from fourth in one-lap qualifying to second. Tony Kanaan, the runnerup last year, will start third. Those are valuable positions in a street race, where passing opportunities are precious.

"It's always nice to start from the pole. It's nice to be quick all weekend," Franchitti said. "I just hope we don't have any trouble with the first corner."

And there's no guarantee if prevailing opinion among drivers is correct, that several intertwining factors could make this another frenzied 181 miles.

The physical nature of the race last season has already earned the Grand Prix a reputation: as the season's only street race, and early enough in the season that drivers are not counting points and being careful, St. Petersburg encourages aggression. Honda's presence as the lone engine provider should also equalize competition and bunch the field, so the thinking goes.

That's where the agreement ends. Dixon thinks those factors will hurt passing, but Franchitti thinks it can be done with proper technique. Then there's the issue of not having traction control. Franchitti thinks it won't be an issue because he likes the tire compound selected. Dixon said that, based on road course tests at Homestead, rear tires will get "abused" after as few as 10 laps because the device that once controlled wheelspin and increased grip has been removed this year.

But it all leads to a common conclusion.

"I think it's going to make the bumping and crashing into each other a lot worse," said defending race winner and St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon. "I've got a feeling there's going to be a lot of different strategies playing out."

Dixon was open about his - "we are going to try to sit behind Dario, save some fuel, (pit) a lap after him and pass him" - but Wheldon wasn't divulging his scheme. He admitted, though, that he'll need something clever to work his way to the front from the 13th starting spot. Using Andretti Green's Honda engines made it easier for Wheldon last season against the underpowered Toyotas, and he drove through the aftermath of a bump between Ryan Briscoe and then-teammate Kanaan in Turn 10 to lead the final nine laps.

"Each situation is different," said Wheldon, who said his car should be much better in long runs. "You've got to read them differently. I do think we have a car that is capable of running in the top five. I really do, but I wasn't able to get it out in qualifying."

His former teammates were able to get everything out of their efforts in St. Petersburg again, however, a year after sweeping the top four finishing spots. Franchitti (first), Kanaan (third) and Bryan Herta (sixth) are bunched at the top of the 19-car field for today, and even rookie Marco Andretti (10th) is in reasonable position.

Franchitti credited his team's depth in street course experience - Kanaan and Herta also drove multiple CART seasons - and his engineers for "getting it right."

That's a lot easier when you do your homework.