Franchitti beats Penskes to Road America pole

Dario Franchitti took his first pole of the season at Road America on Saturday. Franchitti was third fastest yesterday and improved by more than half a second today to break Michael Andretti's track record from two years ago. The Scotsman became the only man to break the 1 min 40 sec barrier as he beat Gil de Ferran to the pole by more than a quarter of a second and took his first pole since Surfer's Paradise last October

Franchitti beats Penskes to Road America pole

"I don't think I got the best out of the car yesterday," Franchitti said. "We tried to improve the car this morning, but we didn't. We went back to what we had and worked on it and made it better for qualifying."

The Team Green driver said he had a plan for qualifying and survived a close call on his pole-winning lap. "We tried to do a time on both sets of tyres, that was the plan. We wanted to get the most out of both sets and we did that. The car was very good. It had a but too much understeer and I made a big mistake in turn one and turn two. I was surprised to get it back because I was pushing really hard.

"I tried to carry too much speed into turn one and turn two," he added. "I thought I was going to get into the wall in turn one. I got into a real tank-slapper! It may look smooth on TV, but it's different in the car."

Franchitti has come close to taking the pole this year at both Mid-Ohio last weekend and Detroit in June. A potential pole-winning lap was disallowed at Mid-Ohio because of a red flag and in Detroit he equalled Juan Montoya's pole-winning lap but started second because Montoya's second fastest lap was quicker than Franchitti's second-best lap. "It's nice to get the pole without tying it, or not having the lap count," Dario remarked.

The Scotsman said he has no big worries about Sunday's race. "It's nice to start up front. You've got a clear track and hopefully we can set the pace and go. I really have no idea what the race is going to bring. I've got to go back and talk to my guys and see what our race strategy is going to be. I know I passed quite a few cars in practice which is one good thing at this track -- at least there's room to pass."

Incredibly, while no fewer than 19 other drivers have led races this season, Franchitti has not led a single lap so far this year. He's hoping to change that statistical anomaly tomorrow as well as score his first win of 2000.

De Ferran slipped to second on the grid today and gave Franchitti credit for beating him. "We had a good day," de Ferran said. "I was happy with the car this morning and happy with it in qualifying, but I overcooked it in turn five on my second set of tyres. I spun which took a little of the edge off the tyres. Qualifying is all about who's going to squeeze the best out of the tyres at that moment in time and today, Dario did a better job."

The Brazilian would not make any guesses about what Sunday's race will bring but made that point that fuel strategy is always extremely important at the 4.0-mile Road America circuit. "It's really hard to predict what's going to happen," de Ferran said. "Passing is possible here, so that's good but this has always been a race that is tight on fuel. I don't see any reason why that should change."

Canadian rookie Alex Tagliani also continued to show good form. Tagliani was fourth quickest on Friday and improved to third today, beating Michael Andretti by just over a tenth of a second. Tagliani qualified on the pole and led much of the race in Brazil in May before crashing-out and has not reproduced that form until this weekend.

"We struggled earlier in the season in qualifying on the road and street courses," Tagliani said. "But we tested good here and I was confident coming back here for the race. It was fun to have a car to fight for pole position today."

Championship leader Michael Andretti fell from second yesterday to fourth today. Andretti ran out of fuel just before the end of the final qualifying session, missing his chance of a clear lap on a light fuel load.

"It's too bad because the car was really coming in," Andretti said. "It was getting better and better. I hung up in traffic on my quick lap. I was on it and Oriol Servia came out right in front of me and that was it. It was good enough for maybe a front row. I don't think I had enough for Dario but I think I had a shot at beating Gil, so it's disappointing."

Andretti said Newman-Haas needs to find a little more speed from his car for the race. "We need to make the car a little bit better. It's not a 100 per cent yet, but we'll work on it."

Adrian Fernandez qualified fifth followed by Mid-Ohio winner Helio Castroneves who changed cars today. Last year's Road America winner Christian Fittipaldi qualified eighth behind Paul Tracy who qualified in the top ten on a road or street circuit for the first time this year.

Last year's champion Juan Pablo Montoya continued to struggle with an ill-handling and also missed the last eight minutes of qualifying on Saturday. Montoya was forced to sit in the pits because he caused a red flag by spinning into a sand trap during Friday's quailfying. He also had a couple of grass-cutting excursions today, closely avoiding hitting Kenny Brack's car as he re-entered the track on one occasion.

Montoya eventually qualified 12th, the first time this year he's missed qualifying among the top ten. The Colombian's fast lap was 1.2 seconds slower than Franchitti's pole. Teammate Jimy Vasser was another six-tenths of a second behind in 16th.

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