Hornish on pole for IndyCar finale

JOLIET, Ill. -- They ran 1-2-3-4 in both practice sessions at Chicagoland Speedway. Then they swept the top four qualifying positions for Sunday's Peak Antifreeze 300.

Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr., Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon have dominated the IRL IndyCar Series all year long, so why should Saturday have played out any different? Just shuffle the four-card deck and see which one comes out on top.

In Chicagoland qualifying, it was emphatically Hornish. The Ohio native locked up the pole position with a lap 0.8 mph faster than Wheldon and a full 1.4 mph faster than his Penske Racing teammate Castroneves. It was a superb performance by Hornish, who is seeking a third IRL IndyCar Series championship crown to accompany the ones he won in 2001 and '02.

"The wind picked up quite a bit so I think that might have thrown some people off with the gears," Hornish modestly stated after the 215.319-mph lap that earned him his fourth pole pole of the season. "I'm a little surprised at the number we put up there. Hopefully we'll be as spot on tomorrow for the race with the gears as we were today.

"Pole doesn't really matter here," he added. "From Kansas all the way through Kentucky I started second every race. But it feels good to get a pole. You don't ever want to start in the back because you can always get taken out in a first-lap crash or something like that. But you can win from anywhere here."

That thought was echoed by Castroneves, who was baffled by his lack of speed during his 213.922-mph qualifying lap.

"So many things can happen at this place that it doesn't matter where you start," he said. "I don't know what happened today. That's why we have data. I'm a mile an hour slow and I have no idea where it is. I was really sure we would do at least 215.

"But I'm very happy to be in this situation and it's definitely going to be a sleepless night. Hopefully we'll come out of here tomorrow very happy."

Wheldon is not renowned as a great qualifier, but he stepped up on Saturday with a 214.592-mph lap to snag the outside front row starting spot.

"The Penske cars are performing very well and it seems the four of us have a distinct advantage over the rest of the field," commented the 2005 IRL series champion. "We don't have any pressure and I really don't care if I come second in the championship -- winning is the only thing that matters.

"Chip Ganassi told Scott and me we need to work together to makes sure the team wins the championship and I plan to be respectful but very firm on the track tomorrow."

Dixon has led only five laps all year on 1.5-mile tracks and the New Zealand native knows he needs to dramatically raise that total on Sunday.

"We need to win the race and lead the most laps, and if we can do that, the championship is still a possibility," said Dixon, who came from 12 points behind in the final round to win the 2003 IndyCar Series title. "But after what the Ganassi team has gone through the last couple of years it's been a huge comeback for us no matter what happens."

Hornish's No. 1 task on Sunday is to finish the race ahead of Castroneves, who leads Hornish by one point in the standings. Wheldon and Dixon are 19 and 21 points back, respectively. Yet Hornish says he doesn't plan on being conservative.

"I plan to go out there and win the race," he vowed. "If I do that I win the championship. But I can't win the race if I'm not there on Lap 200 so I know I have to be there at the finish.

"I hope there's not too much wheel-banging tomorrow. We're professional drivers and we're not supposed to run into each other."

Castroneves said his chief concern is that another driver could get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I hope other drivers are smart enough to realize there's a championship battle going on," he noted. "You don't want to ruin the show and take one of the contenders out. I've already had that experience twice this year."

All four of the championship contenders were among the first drivers to qualify, so the only drama Saturday was whether an outsider could somehow crack the first two rows. Vitor Meira, the last driver to qualify, came close by clocking the sixth-fastest run, just a tick slower than Scott Sharp.

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