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Castroneves on pole, but Dixon's in control

August 24, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, Calif. -- Scott Dixon is on the verge of winning his second IndyCar championship, but Helio Castroneves isn't about to make it easy for him.

Castroneves won the pole position for today's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County with a lap of 107.809 mph at the Infineon Raceway road course.

Ryan Briscoe, his Penske Racing teammate, qualified second at 107.787 mph Saturday and will start next to him on the front row.

Dixon, who qualified fifth for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, has a 78-point lead over Castroneves in the title standings with only three races remaining.

"I'm racing to make this gap in the championship smaller," said Castroneves, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who is looking for his first win in 2008 and his first series title.

"I'm obviously trying everything I can" to catch Dixon, the Brazilian said. "But [the race] is going to be a tough one" because the speeds in the 27-car field "are so close," he said.

Less than one second separated the lap times posted by the top 10 qualifiers.

Danica Patrick, who qualified ninth for Andretti Green Racing, said the heightened competition from the merger of the IndyCar Series and the Champ Car World Series this year also made it tougher to qualify well.

"There are so many good drivers," said Patrick, who started second at Infineon a year ago and finished sixth. "It's a hard pill to swallow to go from last year and having 18 cars and having a couple of front-row starts to now this year having 26, 27 really good cars."

The more crowded field also makes it harder to pass on the 12-turn, 2.3-mile Infineon course, she said.

"When people make mistakes, I think that's how you're going to get your passes done," Patrick said. "You're just going to have to be behind them and put pressure on them."

Dixon, 28, is having a stellar season with six victories, including the Indianapolis 500 in May. Known as the "Iceman" for his subdued manner, Dixon has won three of the last four races, most recently at Kentucky Speedway.

"We just didn't have enough for what those two Penske cars had" in qualifying, Dixon said. "We always seem to race a little bit better and we're definitely happy with where we're at."

The New Zealander could clinch the title today if he wins and Castroneves finishes ninth or worse. But that's unlikely, given that Castroneves had top-five finishes in 12 of the series' 14 races so far this year.

"Obviously that's what we'd love to do, but it's going to be very tough," Dixon said. "We've had a pretty good streak recently, so if we can keep that going and try to gain points on Helio, that would be definitely the way we'd like to do it, but to wrap it up is going to be very tough."

For Castroneves and Briscoe, their front-row sweep in qualifying was particularly rewarding because their primary Sonoma cars were destroyed when the truck carrying the cars caught fire on its way to California. That forced the team to quickly prepare backup cars for the race.

"What a great comeback for Team Penske after what happened this week," said Castroneves, 33. "Those guys did an incredible job."

The accident, and the team's rebound, spawned multiple jokes among the drivers.

After former series champion Tony Kanaan failed to knock Castroneves off the pole and settled for fourth in qualifying, Kanaan said, "We tried to burn their cars, their trailer, nothing worked."

The IndyCar Series used a three-round, elimination-style qualifying format at Infineon as opposed to the common practice at oval tracks of having cars qualify individually.

In the first round, lasting 20 minutes, the field was divided into two groups and the six fastest cars of each group -- which were led by Will Power and Oriol Servia -- moved to the second round.

Of the 12 cars in the 15-minute second round, the six fastest -- this time led by Castroneves -- moved to the final, 10-minute round to determine the pole winner, with Castroneves again having the fastest car.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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GRAND PRIX OF SONOMA

Where: Infineon Raceway

Race: Today, 2:30 p.m.,

ESPN2

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