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Friday, March 28, 2008
Dixon gets pole, but Wheldon, Howard wreck at Homestead qualifying

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Scott Dixon won the pole Friday night and Ed Carpenter will join him on the front row for the Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300.

But Dan Wheldon, Dixon's teammate, will have to move from the back to the front Saturday if he is going to win his fourth consecutive IndyCar Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Wheldon crashed on his first qualifying lap, forcing the team to go to a back-up car and start at the rear of the field for the season opener. It's the first race since Champ Car merged with the IRL in February.

Wheldon was coming out of Turn 4 when the back end spun around on the No. 10 Dallara/Honda for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, causing the front end of the car to hit the outside wall.

"I got loose there in [Turns] 3 and 4," Wheldon said. "I crashed there in practice last year, but I'm sure we'll be fine in the race."

Jay Howard, an IndyCar Series rookie, also crashed during qualifying. Howard bruised his right knee when the back of his car slammed hard into the outside wall. X-rays on Howard knee were negative in the infield care center.

Howard's condition will be re-evaluated Saturday morning, but his Roth Racing team isn't sure if it can get a back-up ready to race. The spare car is set up for the street race next weekend at St. Petersburg, Fla.

Some on-track incidents were expected in the two practice sessions Friday because most of the eight Champ Car drivers had little experience racing on high-speed ovals. But both sessions were completed without a problem.

It wasn't the Champ Car drivers who had problems in qualifying. Wheldon is the 2005 IndyCar Series champion and Howard was the 2006 champion in the Indy Pro Series, the IndyCar feeder league.

Dixon's pole-winning four-lap average speed was 213.341 mph. Carpenter's average speed was 213.311 mph.

Kanaan said everyone -- newcomers and IRL veterans alike -- was being extra careful.

"We were giving each other a lot of room, which is not going to happen in the race," he noted.

For Brian Barnhart, vice president of competition for the IRL, the merger between Champ Car has been so far, so good.

"I think it's a daunting task for them," Barnhart said between practice sessions.

"It is a challenge in a lot of ways out there, and especially with 25 or 26 cars. It's going to be a new experience in learning the tendencies of other drivers. The people that have historically been in the IndyCar Series had a comfort level knowing what the driver next to them is going to do. ... Now a third of our field is completely new at this, so the regulars are going to be learning a lot about what they're doing."

Barnhart said he harped on the inexperience level and preached patience during his meeting with the drivers before the opening practice.

"I think it will come," he noted. "They're very good teams, they're very well engineered, they're good drivers. To see the increase in improvement from Monday evening [when the Homestead test began] to this afternoon shows that they're going to adapt to it very well."

Tony Kanaan said he noticed the difference in the IRL IndyCar Series when he drove onto pit road.

"The huge impression was when I came into the pits and I saw that the pit lane was full from the first box coming in to the last box coming out," the former series champion said. "I'm the third pit out, so I had to drive through all the teams and I was just smiling big-time inside my helmet."

Bruno Junqueira, one of only two former Champ Car drivers with extensive oval experience, said he doesn't expect the former Champ Car teams to be very competitive -- for a while.

"We are competing against very good teams that have had this car for five years," Junqueira said. "So to have three weeks with the car, we're going to be behind. I think we'll catch up and be really close the second half of the season."

Will Power, preparing for his first oval race, said this week is like a long test session for the former Champ Car teams and drivers.

"It's going to be a test session for the first half of the year on ovals for us," the Australian driver said. "It became quite evident at the end of the two days of testing here that we're lacking quote a bit of speed in comparison to the [IndyCar] guys.

"We're going to try and be really strong on all the road courses and get as many points as we can. On the ovals, my plan is just to finish the race, get as many miles and understand the car as much as possible."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.