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Two wrecks, one cool cat

Crashes by Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan left last year's winner, Helio Castroneves, on the pole for today's race.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 1, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - It likely wasn't a fun night at Dan Wheldon's house.

Neither the former Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner nor the best performer here never to win the race left the track happy on Saturday.

First Wheldon, a St. Petersburg resident and the 2005 winner of the Indy Racing League's first non-oval race, wrecked his No. 10 Honda-powered IndyCar in morning practice. He qualified a woeful 14th in his backup car.

Less than half an hour later, Wheldon's friend and weekend house guest, Tony Kanaan, mashed the front of his No. 11 car after clipping a tire coming entering Turn 9 and plowing nose-first into a concrete barrier during the league's "Fast Six" qualifying scramble.

Those mishaps left last year's winner, Helio Castroneves, on the pole for today's race.

Kanaan had posted the second-best time in single-car qualifying, but in the IRL's quirky street-racing procedure, he and the other five top drivers on time had the opportunity to improve their position in a final 10-minute session.

Kanaan could improve only one spot, so retaking the track seemed a high risk for the reward unless someone bettered his time of 1 minute, 1.5955 seconds around the 1.8-mile course. But out he went, and three laps after besting Castroneves' time, he ran afoul of Turn 9 near the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. Kanaan said the risk was still worth it.

"Of course it was because I know Helio, and I know his potential very well," he said. "He could still beat me, so I was trying for the best lap."

No one surpassed Kanaan's time, but because he brought out the yellow in the final session he'll have to start sixth, last among the Fast Six runners.

Kanaan said the accident was a result of overcompensating for an understeer problem on the previous lap.

"I went in, turned a little earlier and this time the tires were a little hotter and the car gripped. I clipped the inside wall (entering Turn 9) and unfortunately hit the outside wall," he said. "It was my mistake."

It could have been worse for Kanaan. The IRL allowed Andretti Green Racing mechanics to work through the night rebuilding and repairing a car that was second-fastest on Friday and a lightning bolt again Saturday. Kanaan would have gone to the back of the 18-car field - almost insurmountable on a street course where passing opportunities are precious - had he gone to a backup car.

"I have five cars to pass tomorrow so we'll see," said Kanaan, the only person to finish in the top three in both IndyCar races in St. Petersburg. "Trust me, there are going to be a lot of people thinking about me tonight."

Marco Andretti, who won an Indy Pro Series race here in 2005, joins Team Penske's Castroneves on the front row, followed by AGR teammate Dario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon.

Wheldon, whose frustrating weekend continued with the morning practice crash and tough qualifying, had lightened his mood enough after qualifying to stop by Kanaan's garage area for a check on Kanaan's health and a hug.

He wasn't so chipper earlier in explaining his crash with less than a half hour left in the morning practice. Wheldon's right front clipped the tires outside of Turn 2, damaging his suspension and wing and ripping off the left front and rear right tires as he went into the wall near Turn 3.

Ganassi, apparently unfazed and in a better mood than the flustered 2005 series champion quipped, "He ran out of talent. What can I say?"

"It's been terrible up to now. It's just terribly frustrating," said Wheldon, who won the race when traction control was still used in 2005. "I haven't been able to get the car to my liking and perhaps just trying to push too hard I went off (course)."

"It's 100 laps out here and you can make up some time," said Wheldon, who qualified 13th in St. Petersburg last year. "We never did qualify well here. You won't have to worry about me, I'll be fine."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

IRL points system

Drivers are awarded points according to a descending scale. The pole winner receives three bonus points, the No. 2 qualifier gets two points and No. 3 one point. Also, the driver who leads the most laps gets three bonus points.

Pos

Points
1 50
2 40
3 35
4 32
5 30
6 28
7 26
8 24
9 22
Pos Points
10 20
11 19
12 18
13 17
14 16
15 15
16 14
17 13
18 12