Rice fast, but remains cautious

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- One practice day won't help predict who will eventually emerge as the 2005 IRL IndyCar Series champion. But Friday's action at Homestead-Miami Speedway certainly provided some clues about what to look for in Sunday's Toyota 300 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN2).

Buddy Rice's 2004 season proved that the pole position he earned for last year's season-opener at Homestead had been no fluke. And on Friday, Rice demonstrated that he is still the fastest man over the course of a single 1.5-mile lap around Homestead by topping the timing screens in Rahal Letterman Racing's Panoz-Honda.

The Phoenix native's best lap in the afternoon was timed at 213.514 mph, while Bryan Herta (Andretti Green Racing Dallara-Honda) and Tomas Scheckter (Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet) also topped 213 mph.

Rice's best lap was almost 4 mph slower than his '04 pole lap of 217.388 mph, which was achieved using a 3.5-liter engine. Despite the rapid pace of engine development led by Honda, it appears the IndyCar Series' efforts to keep speeds at a reasonable level are succeeding.

"Obviously it was a draft lap with everybody out there and I wouldn't read too much into it," Rice said. "But clearly our car is good."

Last year, Rice was Rahal Letterman's sole driver at Homestead, with a second car for Vitor Meira added two races later at Motegi, Japan. On Friday, Meira capably backed up Rice in the RLR stable, turning the fourth fastest lap at 212.332 mph. Danica Patrick was 18th at 210.369 mph on the day of her official IndyCar Series debut.

The solid effort from Bobby Rahal's team shows how far the organization has come in a year. Twelve months ago, the team was in a state of turmoil, still in the process of determining its driver lineups and even debating which series to race in. That's what made Rice's '04 pole so stunning.

"We shocked ourselves," Rice admitted. "We were terrible when we tested here and we only got a total of two days testing before the season. So when we got the pole here, it was probably a bigger shock to us than it was to anybody else. Bit it showed that Bobby made the change to the Panoz chassis at the right time and it got the ball rolling for us."

After securing pole position for his first race with the Rahal team, Rice finished seventh on the day that counted. He wasn't expected to contend for the 2004 title, but three race wins, including the Indianapolis 500, helped him do exactly that. It also means that he starts 2005 as one of the IndyCar championship favorites.

"We're only concerned with ourselves," Rice said. "Andretti Green will be strong, but there are a lot of teams up and down the paddock that can say the same thing. If we do our jobs, everything will fall into place."

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the pace of Panther Racing's Dallara-Chevrolets. Scheckter's teammate, rookie Tomas Enge, cracked the top 10 in the only other Chevy-powered car in the field with a 211.775 mph lap good for ninth place.

There was relative parity among the League's three engine manufacturers, with all represented in the top six. Scott Dixon was the quickest Toyota runner at 212.194 mph.

"Chevrolet has put in a lot of hard work in the offseason and the early signs are very good," Scheckter said. "We ran full tanks and we seemed to be very good even at the end of a long run.

"Chevrolet has been given a really hard time and I take my hat off to them," he added. "A lot of heart and hard work from a company can overcome however much money is spent."

Last year was the first time that the IndyCars raced on Homestead's dual banking. Remodeled for the third time since 1996, the high banks worked like a charm because for the first time, the open-wheel cars were able to run two distinct grooves. The 2004 IndyCar race was easily the closest and most competitive open-wheel contest the South Florida track has hosted, capped by a thrilling last-lap pass for the win by Sam Hornish Jr.

If anything, this year should be even better.

"Some drivers have moved around to other teams with their sponsorships and other teams have added cars," Rice said. "It has compacted the group even more and I think that in qualifying only three or so tenths of a second will cover the field."

But Scheckter noted that the five first-year drivers in the IndyCar Series need to take care.

"I think this year is going to be crazy from start to finish," he predicted. "There was a bit of erratic driving in practice, a lot of swerving around. Maybe because it's the beginning of the season and there are some jitters.

"But a lot of them don't understand how close it's going to be in the race and they need to learn some oval etiquette, or some IRL etiquette. If you get some understeer, you have to lift. If you drift up the track into the path of another car, you can learn what happens pretty quickly."

NOTES: Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr., who dominated the Homestead event in 2004, were seventh and 12th fastest Friday. That Homestead victory was two-time IndyCar Series champion Hornish's last race win...Marlboro announced Friday that it has resurrected the Marlboro Pole Award, last seen in CART from 1997-2001. The cigarette brand will award $10,000 to the polewinner at each IRL IndyCar Series race, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500. At Indy, Marlboro will write a check for $50,000 to the driver who leads the most laps.

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