- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Where did that come from?
How did a week of surprises at Indianapolis Motor Speedway turn into the 17th Indy 500 pole position for Penske Racing?
What got into Ryan Briscoe, the sometimes-forgotten third member of Team Penske, that drove him past his more celebrated teammates to a $100,000 payday and the best seat in the house for the 2012 Indianapolis 500?
Call it teamwork, Penske style. Briscoe focused on race setup work throughout the picture-perfect week of practice before suddenly emerging with the second-fastest speed on Fast Friday.
On Saturday, when it really counted, Briscoe saved his best for last. After putting himself into the Fast Nine shootout with the fifth seed, the 30-year-old Australian posted a 226.484 mph average in the heat of the day at 4:46 p.m., and sweated it out in the near-90-degree heat for the next hour and a quarter as eight other competitors took their best shots.
Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe came tantalizingly close -- within .0023 seconds, or 9.2 inches, over the course of Indianapolis' unique four-lap, 10-mile qualifying run. That was the difference between Briscoe and the 226.481 mph run that Hinchcliffe (who was the leader going into the Fast Nine) laid down at 5:10 p.m.
"I don't know how many times I've been here, thinking I had a good car, and watched Helio go a mile an hour quicker," Briscoe said of his teammate since 2008. "We always know we're going into pole day or race day going up against each other. But we help each other through the practice session to get there. Teamwork is how we get to the front.
"Qualifying is a bit of a solo deal, but we share information about the car and the engine and the tires -- everything is transparent," he added. "That's the way Roger [Penske] and Tim [Cindric] want it, and that's why this team is so successful."
Briscoe exuded a quiet confidence throughout the week of practice at Indianapolis despite never threatening the top of the time sheets until Fast Friday.
He's maintained all along that the Dallara DW12 chassis suits his style, and that was apparent Saturday afternoon at IMS during the pole shootout.
"I've never done so much race work going into a qualifying weekend," Briscoe said. "A week ago, I never thought I'd have a shot at the pole. But we feel really good about our race cars. We worked so hard. Chevrolet did a great job. I think the extra boost favored the Chevrolet cars, and we took advantage of it."
Indeed, the Ilmor-developed Chevrolet engine really came to life for Fast Friday and the qualifying weekend when INDYCAR allowed an additional 10 kPA of turbocharger boost. The temporary injection of an extra 40-50 horsepower produced the desired result, as pole day produced lap speeds 3 to 4 mph faster than those recorded through Thursday utilizing 130 kPa of boost.
Chevrolet claimed eight of the nine positions in the Fast Nine, with the only Honda interloper driven by rookie Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Four-time defending IndyCar Series champion Chip Ganassi Racing placed its drivers 12th and 14th through 16th, led by Graham Rahal, as the Honda entries were consistently 1 to 2 mph slower than their competition powered by Chevrolet.
"We're having a hard time figuring this one out," said P16 qualifier (and two-time Indianapolis winner) Dario Franchitti. "It has not been a very good qualifying day for us, and it just shows everybody can get it wrong sometimes. Today, as a unit, myself and the Target guys are a bit off."
At least the Ganassi quartet safely put its cars into the show; three drivers wrecked Saturday, marking the first significant crash testing of the new Dallara DW12 chassis.
There were no injuries, although there was a scary moment when Ed Carpenter's DW12 flipped onto its side as it hugged the short chute wall after Carpenter spun during a midafternoon qualifying run.
But once again, the talk of pole day at Indianapolis was Team Penske. And the driver of the day was not three-time Indianapolis winner (and four-time pole sitter) Castroneves or IndyCar Series championship leader Power.
The smallest of margins, it's heartbreaking. But at the end of the day, we're starting from the middle of the front row in the Indy 500 and that's an awesome thing.
”-- No. 2 qualifier James Hinchcliffe
While competitive, they were comfortable with ceding the spotlight to teammate Briscoe.
"He's had a bit of a rough start to the season, but it all comes around," Power said of his countryman. "It turns around in the end. That was not the qualifying spot we were looking for, but that was the speed we had. I thought sixth was about as good as I could get, so fifth isn't bad. We'll be better in the race."
Castroneves gave it his best shot but a fifth Indianapolis pole was out of his grasp. He'll line up sixth.
Penske legend Rick Mears holds the Indianapolis record with six poles for the 500.
"It's Indy," Castroneves said with a shrug. "Every now and then, a guy puts down a big number and you have no clue why. It's just that sort of place. Conditions change; you get a gust of wind. It's a quick four laps, and anything can happen.
"I was very happy the way my car was handling out there, and I did so many practice runs at 226," he added. "But I'm happy for Ryan and I'm happy for the team. It's a big deal for him. It's his second pole of the season, and he knows how to go around here."
It's been a remarkable 2012 season for Team Penske, which has swept every pole position and every race win to date.
Roger Penske almost single-handedly brought Chevrolet back to the IndyCar Series as an engine manufacturer, and the Bowtie Brigade has crushed Honda in the results column so far this year.
Hinchcliffe lost out on fastest-rookie honors at Indianapolis by a miniscule margin in 2011, and he came even closer to scoring his first Indy car career pole position Saturday.
The Canadian's final warm-up lap on his second-place run was faster than 227 mph, and it would have been enough to secure the pole. A fractionally slower fourth and final qualifying lap proved his undoing.
"The smallest of margins, it's heartbreaking," Hinchcliffe said. "But at the end of the day, we're starting from the middle of the front row in the Indy 500 and that's an awesome thing. I'm going to lose a little bit of sleep tonight thinking about how close I was to Ryan and knowing that we had it for three of the four laps.
"That's Indy, man," added the man who took over Andretti Autosport's GoDaddy-sponsored car from Danica Patrick. "It's a gust of wind, it's a shadow over a corner that changes, and sometime that can be the difference."
Briscoe has had a few cringe-worthy moments at Indianapolis. He finished 10th as a rookie while driving for Ganassi, then claimed fifth in 2007 for the team known now as Dragon Racing in what was basically his audition for Penske's Indy car team.
He's almost always qualified well during his Penske tenure (never lower than fourth other than 2011, when a qualifying day practice crash set him back), but he hasn't finished higher than 15th.
The nadir came in 2008 when he collided with the popular Patrick in pit lane and appeared to sit helplessly in his car as she stomped over to accost him.
It's a measure of the Aussie's grit that he rebounded from that embarrassment in the best way possible just a week later at the Milwaukee Mile to score his first career IndyCar Series race win. That was arguably the most important victory of Briscoe's career, although clearly it will be eclipsed if he can translate his Indianapolis pole into a triumph in the May 27 race.
"It was Lap 4 that got me the pole today," Briscoe said. "We had the consistency. That's 17 poles for Roger Penske, and I'm proud to be part of this team and that record. We got three cars on the first two rows today, and that's a massive accomplishment."
Of course, Penske also holds the Indianapolis record with 15 wins in the 500. No one else is even close.
And based on what we saw Saturday, he could be on the brink of his own sweet 16.