New qualifying format doesn't tarnish Pole Day magic

INDIANAPOLIS -- The rules are different and the crowds are a fraction of what they used to be, but Pole Day is still a major part of the mystique of the Indianapolis 500. Just ask Rick Mears.

Best known for his four Indy 500 race wins, Mears also holds the race record with six poles. And the man known as "Rocket Rick" might be even prouder of his qualifying feats.

"The race is 500 miles to get it sorted," Mears said. "You just see what you have and then dial it from there. But of anything I've ever done, qualifying at Indy has always been the pressure cooker -- if you're in the hunt.

"If you aren't, you just go out there and put four laps in and get it done and put it in the show," Mears continued. "But if you've got a good car, now you've got to take advantage of it. You've got four laps -- not just the best of two, so it's figuring out what the tires are going to do for four laps, what the fuel load's gonna do for four laps, and how to set the car to where it's going to be the best average for four laps.

"Then you have to get the most out of it without making a mistake,"
he said. "It's the most pressure but the most fun."

There's not quite as much pressure on drivers as there used to be, because these days, they get up to three chances to qualify. On each of the four qualifying days.

A new format introduced in 2005 but yet to be tested (due to inclement weather the last two years) allows only 11 cars to qualify on each of the first three qualification days. IMS officials hope the prospect of "bumping" on Pole Day and subsequent qualifying days will add excitement and bring back fans.

"I think it's terrific," said Roger Penske, whose cars have won at Indianapolis a record 14 times. "There's 15, 16, 17 cars that would like to get in the top-11 positions, and I think the interest for the fans that take the time to come out here tomorrow will see a great day."

On paper, the new format is even more convoluted than the Daytona 500's confusing qualifying system. A driver could conceivably run 210 miles around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (12 10-mile qualifying runs, plus warm-up and cool-down laps) just trying to make the field of the Indianapolis 500.

Even so, the basic challenge and importance of trying to claim pole position for the Indianapolis 500 is still there.

"Maybe it gives a couple of guys a couple of extra shots, it but it still boils down to the same thing," Mears said. "The guy that has the best car and the best four laps is the guy that's going to sit on the pole."

Who is that going to be in 2007? Here are the top 10 candidates:

1. Dan Wheldon -- Why he could do it: He's dominated the 2007 IndyCar season and he set the pace throughout most of the first week of practice at Indy. Plus he loooooves Indy.

Why he won't: Wheldon isn't the series' best qualifier, and he might get an unfavorable draw. But he's still the overwhelming favorite.

2. Scott Dixon -- Why he could do it: He was the first driver to hit
226 mph this month and the first to hit 227. The Ganassi team has been on top in general this year, and Dixon wants to turn the tables on teammate Wheldon at his favorite track.

Why he won't: Dixon's record at Indianapolis isn't the best and he's still trying to live down spinning on a late-race caution in 2003.

3. Sam Hornish Jr. -- Why he could do it: He's the IRL's acknowledged oval master and the pressure is off now that he's finally won at Indy.

Why he won't: The Team Penske cars have been curiously off Ganassi's pace so far in '07 and the trend continued at Indy.

4. Tony Kanaan -- Why he could do it: He's fed up with playing second fiddle to teammate Danica Patrick in the media while being asked to set up her car. And he's the IndyCar Series' most consistent front-runner.

Why he won't: Andretti Green Racing is a tick off Penske's pace on big ovals, and another tick behind Ganassi.

5. Helio Castroneves -- Why he could do it: He's a two-time Indianapolis winner and former pole-sitter, and the circumstances behind his 2001 pole play right into the new qualifying format.

Why he won't: Team Penske's qualifying strategy fails almost as often as it succeeds.

6. Dario Franchitti -- Why he could do it: His smooth style is perfect for Indy's long qualifying run and he has started on the front row before.

Why he won't: He's not in a Ganassi car.

7. Danica Patrick -- Why she could do it: She's the undisputed fan favorite and will feed on the energy of the Pole Day crowd.

Why she won't: She's cracked under the pressure of Indy qualifying before, and this year she doesn't have the car advantage she had in 2005.

8. Ryan Briscoe -- Why he could do it: He's a highly rated racing driver who has unfinished business in IndyCar. And he's in a Penske-prepared car.

Why he won't: One-off entries run by satellite teams just don't beat the big guys to pole position at Indianapolis.

9. Tomas Scheckter -- Why he could do it: He's fast, he's fearless, and he's willing to lay it all on the line.

Why he won't: His Vision Racing car still isn't fast enough for pole.

10. Milka Duno -- Why she could do it: An 1,100-horsepower 1994 Ilmor- Mercedes engine might accidentally get installed in her car, or perhaps Danica Patrick's 2005 qualifying motor.

Why she won't: Duno, who crashed on Friday, just isn't skilled enough.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.