RICHMOND, VA. Helio Castroneves took advantage of fast conditions Friday to shatter the track record at Richmond International Raceway and win the pole for the SunTrust Indy Challenge.
Castroneves turned a lap at 171.202 mph on the three-quarter-mile oval, which was resurfaced during the offseason to eliminate the bumps and aberrations that slowed drivers in the past.
"The guys did an excellent job," Castroneves said. "When your car is handling like that, it makes putting it on the front row very easy."
Eleven drivers topped the previous track record of 168.705 mph, set by Gil de Ferran during qualifying in 2002.
Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice came in second with a lap of 170.782 mph, nudging rookie Mark Taylor and 2002 Richmond champion Sam Hornish Jr. for the front row in tonight's race.
It's Castroneves' first pole of the season and fifth of his IRL career. The Brazilian is third in the points standings after a runner-up finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway and a third-place finish in Japan earlier this season.
Castroneves was runner-up at Richmond last year.
Rice, fourth in the standings, continued his excellent form in qualifying runs this season. He has won two poles and started second in two other races.
It's a marked improvement from last year, when Rice didn't start better than 10th in any race.
"This year is much better all the way around," the Phoenix native said. "We've unloaded quite well and are on the front row again. We just need to get one spot better."
Rice, too, praised the faster conditions of the IRL series' shortest track, which was repaved after a drain system was installed last year.
"You can only imagine how fast we would have been if we had a 3.5 liter (engine) in the back of these cars," he said.
The increased speed, combined with the track's tight turns and high-banking walls, means traffic could be more of a problem for drivers during today's race than in years past. The back of the field qualified at speeds nearly 10 mph slower than the leaders.
"Traffic is always trouble here," Castroneves said. "You just need to be able to negotiate and try to keep steady."
Probably the biggest surprise of qualifying Friday was Taylor's 170.683 mph lap to grab third place. It's the Briton's best career qualifying performance, following a sixth-place start at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February.
Taylor hasn't had a top 10 finish all year, crashing his car in four of five races. He sits 19th in the points standings.
"Running in the top five hasn't done us any good if we don't finish," he said. "The first step is completing the race tomorrow at the front. I know I can do it, and everybody on this team knows I can do it."
Taylor is joined in the second row by Hornish, who seemed disappointed with his qualifying position after posting the fastest speed in practice Friday at 171.093 mph.
"I thought we had a good shot at the pole, but unfortunately, with the qualifying setup we ran, that's all we had," he said.
Hornish also predicted a few brush-ups in today's race.
"We'll be running in traffic all night, so we need to stay out of trouble and execute clean pit stops," he said.
Scott Dixon, the defending IRL and Richmond champion, qualified sixth with one of the night's last runs.