Franchitti sets provisional Houston pole

Dario Franchitti set the pace in Friday's opening qualifying session at the Houston street circuit.

Franchitti sets provisional Houston pole

For the list of times from first qualifying, click HERE.

Franchitti won this race two years ago and finished second to team mate Paul Tracy last year, but is still chasing his first victory in 2000. He's taken two poles and two each of second and third places this year and is obviously anxious to take his first win of the year.

Dario finished Friday's qualifying session in the tyre barriers after running wide at one of the many 90-degree corners on his second set of tyres. His car was undamaged in the incident, but it brought the session to an end with a red flag and he will have to serve an eight-minute penalty on Saturday as a result.

"I was three-tenths of a second quicker on that lap," Franchitti said. "Things were looking good but I had flat-spotted the left front and then I locked up the left front. I tried to drag the car to the left but ended up in the tyre barrier. The car wasn't damaged, but I'm happy because the car is feeling good. Tomorrow's run will be critical early in the session because of the penalty."

Despite his incident, Franchitti finished the day just under two-tenths of a second quicker than Jimmy Vasser and the rest of the field. In fact, the fastest six cars today were covered by one-quarter of a second with second through sixth separated by just 0.061 of a second. Vasser was particularly impressive, producing the second best lap in both the morning and afternoon sessions. Vasser has not been on the podium since finishing third at Long Beach in April and second at Rio in May and hopes to reproduce that form this weekend

"The car is working really well and I'm enjoying myself," Vasser grinned. "This has been a great day. We have a little bit of understeer, but overall the car isn't too far off from where it needs to be. Our set-up is similar to what we had in Long Beach and we finished third there."

Third through sixth on Friday were Christian Fittipaldi, Kenny Brack, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran. Championship leader de Ferran was barely a quarter of a second slower than Franchitti.

"The times are incredibly tight and we're right there," de Ferran said. "Seven hundredths of a second and we'd be second fastest. Unfortunately we weren't able to get a good run on our second set of tyres because of the red flag, but tomorrow is the day that counts. We were able to improve from the morning session and we'll make some changes tonight and hopefully improve again tomorrow."

St Louis winner Juan Pablo Montoya was seventh on Friday, just over half a second slower than Franchitti. Montoya was his usual unconcerned self: "The car felt good," he said. "We were just unlucky with those red flags. The guys will work on a few things before tomorrow and we should be set for qualifying."

Completing Friday's top 10 were Tony Kanaan and championship contenders Paul Tracy and Michael Andretti. Tracy and Andretti recorded almost identical times, both just under three-quarters of a second slower than pacesetter Franchitti. Both Tracy and Andretti said they would have turned quicker laps had it not been for the late red flag caused by Franchitti. In fact, Tracy went down the escape road to avoid hitting teammate Franchitti.

"I couldn't catch a break in traffic," Tracy said. "I was also having some trouble with my brakes. That's what caused me to go down the escape road. But I think we've got a pretty good car. We should be quicker tomorrow."

Andretti shared the same belief. "The red came out at an unfortunate time for everyone," Michael said. "It's hard to say where that lap would have put us, but we would have definitely been in a better position than 10th."

Another championship contender qualifying down the field on Friday was Roberto Moreno. The little Brazilian is second in points but had never seen the Houston street circuit until Friday. He was 13th today, just over one second slower than Franchitti.

"It's a little tough for me being my first time at this track," Moreno said. "But I'm getting to know the circuit. We're almost there, but not quite. I'm looking forward to making some more improvements for tomorrow."

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