Scott Dixon denied Mario Moraes a first IndyCar pole position with a blistering run at the end of Motegi qualifying.
The pole gives Dixon a bonus point in his chase after championship leader Ryan Briscoe, although the reigning champion is still 32 points adrift with two rounds to go.
Briscoe will start fourth for Penske, alongside his main title rival Dario Franchitti (Ganassi), who is 25 points behind at present.
KV driver Moraes looked set for a superb maiden pole after his four-lap average of 201.504mph outpaced the rest of the usual frontrunners.
But Dixon was last in the qualifying line and comfortably beat Moraes' effort. No one else lapped over 202mph all afternoon, yet Dixon's entire four-lap run beat that mark, giving him only his second pole of the year.
While Briscoe's fourth position keeps him within range of his title rivals, his Penske team-mate Helio Castroneves will start at the back having understeered into the Turn 4 wall on his third qualifying lap. The crash ended a streak of Motegi poles for Castroneves - who had started first in Japan for the past three seasons, albeit twice due to championship positions as the 2006 and 2008 sessions were rained off.
Local favourite Hideki Mutoh (Andretti Green) provided the other crash of the session, spinning into the Turn 3 wall. Mutoh limped away from the heavy accident but has already been cleared to race tomorrow as x-rays on his feet did not show any injuries.
Last year's winner Danica Patrick will start from sixth this time, having qualified between Newman/Haas/Lanigan duo Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia. As had been the case all day, Patrick was easily the fastest AGR runner, with Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti back in 14th and 15th.
Panther's Dan Wheldon took eighth, as Justin Wilson underlined his and Dale Coyne Racing's strides in oval form with ninth ahead of Tomas Scheckter (Dreyer & Reinbold)
Returnees Kosuke Matsuura (Conquest), Roger Yasukawa (Dreyer & Reinbold) and Stanton Barrett (3G) will start 17th, 18th and 21st.
Pos Driver Team Speed 1. Scott Dixon Ganassi 202.031 2. Mario Moraes KV 201.504 3. Dario Franchitti Ganassi 201.395 4. Ryan Briscoe Penske 200.849 5. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas/Lanigan 200.649 6. Danica Patrick Andretti Green 200.519 7. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas/Lanigan 199.703 8. Dan Wheldon Panther 199.693 9. Justin Wilson Coyne 199.489 10. Tomas Scheckter Dreyer & Reinbold 199.354 11. Ed Carpenter Vision 199.164 12. Raphael Matos Luczo Dragon 198.907 13. Mike Conway Dreyer & Reinbold 198.858 14. Tony Kanaan Andretti Green 198.650 15. Marco Andretti Andretti Green 198.557 16. Ryan Hunter-Reay Foyt 198.226 17. Kosuke Matsuura Conquest 197.921 18. Roger Yasukawa Dreyer & Reinbold 197.498 19. EJ Viso HVM 197.443 20. Robert Doornbos HVM 196.756 21. Stanton Barrett 3G 190.878 22. Helio Castroneves Penske 23. Hideki Mutoh Andretti Green
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