Franchitti comes back to win IndyCar pole at Sonoma

  • By Janie McCauley Associated Press
  • Saturday, August 22, 2009 9:30pm
  • SportsSports

SONOMA, Calif. — Dario Franchitti spent extra time in the pits preparing his car for the final session of qualifying. Then, the 2007 IRL champion went into the dirt midway through his run because of trouble downshifting.

Somehow, Franchitti’s tires quickly came clean and he overcame the gearbox problems Saturday to capture the pole for the Sonoma Grand Prix.

It was impressive to say the least.

“I’ve been off in the dirt there a few times in my life,” said Franchitti, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “It came back pretty quickly. That was good.”

That same uphill turn — tricky 3A on the 12-turn, 2.303-mile road course at Infineon Raceway — was the site of a frightening crash earlier during practice. Will Power, the third driver for Team Penske, broke two vertebrae in his lower back and sustained a concussion after crashing into Nelson Philippe of Conquest Racing.

Philippe also sustained a concussion along with an open fracture to his left foot that required surgery. Both were to be hospitalized overnight.

Franchitti turned in a lap of 76.7987 seconds, narrowly beating out Ryan Briscoe for his fourth pole of the season heading into Sunday’s 75-lap race. It was an unlikely finish considering Franchitti wound up with all four tires in the dirt only two laps before his fast lap of 107.955 mph.

Franchitti, the 36-year-old Scot, was able to get the dirt off his tires over the next half-lap, saving him from needing a stop in the pits for new tires.

Briscoe was clearly frustrated to lose the opportunity but still pleased to be among the top drivers.

“I was going into qualifying not the most confident driver out there,” he said. “I didn’t have a good practice session this morning. I seemed to spend more time in the dirt than on the tarmac. I certainly went into qualifying with a very big question mark over my head … and it really came together. The whole thing went very smoothly, much like the previous few road courses we’ve done.”

Defending champion Helio Castroneves, the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner of Team Penske, will start in the second row along with Marco Andretti followed by Hideki Mutoh and Graham Rahal in the third row.

Castroneves took the pole in the 2008 race and went on to win.

Franchitti is looking for his first victory at Sonoma after a couple of near misses — he placed second in 2006 and third in ‘07 after staring on the pole that year. Franchitti is coming off a third-place finish at Mid-Ohio, his sixth top-three this season.

Franchitti returned to the IRL this season after a failed one-year experiment in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. During his absence, the IRL made some changes.

“I’m feeling good heading into tomorrow,” he said. “Qualifying has this new format. I’m new to it this year having a year out and it’s bloody hard work. You have to do five absolute 100-percent runs, four of which are on new tires generally.”

IRL points leader Scott Dixon, the ‘07 Sonoma champion and Franchitti’s teammate with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, qualified 10th and Danica Patrick was 11th.

Dixon leads the points race with 460, three up on Briscoe and 19 ahead of Franchitti, who picked up a point for taking the pole. Dixon won at Mid-Ohio on Aug. 9 after starting third.

“It was probably one of our worst qualifyings,” Dixon said. “It’s a bit frustrating, especially coming off such a strong finish at Mid-Ohio. We struggled here in the test and then this weekend we seem to have some inherent braking problem. All the time that I lose comparing to Dario is basically in the big braking zones. We found something wrong in a master cylinder. … Hopefully we can turn it around tomorrow.”

The 28-year-old Power, the former road course specialist who finished fifth in this year’s Indianapolis 500, crashed into Philippe coming out of a blind corner. He was scheduled for an MRI exam later Saturday.

Power was airlifted to nearby Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. Philippe was taken by ambulance to the same hospital, where he was undergoing surgery on his foot.

IndyCar officials said both drivers were reported to be awake and alert. They each withdrew from the race, meaning no new driver will fill the seat.

After Saturday qualifying; race Sunday

At Infineon Raceway

Sonoma, Calif.

Lap length: 2.303 miles

(Car number in parentheses)

1. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 107.955.

2. (6) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Honda, 107.885.

3. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Honda, 107.855.

4. (26) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 107.6.

5. (27) Hideki Mutoh, Dallara-Honda, 107.386.

6. (02) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 107.132.

7. (11) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Honda, 107.687.

8. (25) Franck Montagny, Dallara-Honda, 107.555.

9. (24) Mike Conway, Dallara-Honda, 107.548.

10. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 107.359.

11. (7) Danica Patrick, Dallara-Honda, 106.82.

12. (4) Dan Wheldon, Dallara-Honda, 106.733.

13. (13) E.J. Viso, Dallara-Honda, 106.404.

14. (5) Mario Moraes, Dallara-Honda, 107.015.

15. (33) Robert Doornbos, Dallara-Honda, 106.143.

16. (14) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Honda, 106.785.

17. (06) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Honda, 106.101.

18. (2) Raphael Matos, Dallara-Honda, 106.764.

19. (18) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 105.837.

20. (98) Richard Antinucci, Dallara-Honda, 106.634.

21. (20) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Honda, 105.964.

22. (23) Milka Duno, Dallara-Honda, 99.15.

23. (12) Will Power, Dallara-Honda.

24. (34) Nelson Philippe, Dallara-Honda.

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