Juan Montoya on pole at the Gateway

Juan Montoya took his sixth pole of the year at the Gateway Raceway oval in St Louis while Jimmy Vasser completed the Ganassi team's first sweep of the front row since Mid-Ohio in 1996.

Juan Montoya on pole at the Gateway

Montoya has been on the pace all weekend and emerged as the man to beat this afternoon after being third quickest in the morning. The Colombian has taken the pole in all four short oval races this year.

"The car had a lot of understeer this morning," Montoya said. "We worked on the car and it was better this afternoon. Then on my qualifying run I went too fast into turn three, so I had to lift a little bit. I lost a little time there but it was good enough for pole, so I'm happy. I think we're looking good for the race."

Montoya has led 704 laps this year, more than twice as many as the next man Helio Castroneves, but has won only two races because of mechanical failures and other problems. The 24-year old Colombian is therefore ranked only 11th in points, but another race win or two could vault him well up the championship standings.

"We're just trying to win races," Montoya said. "We haven't had a very good year and it would great to finish the year with some wins. It's possible. The car has been good on ovals all year and I'm sure we'll have a car to race to win tomorrow."

Vasser's qualifying run was possibly even more impressive representing his best since qualifying second at Long Beach five months ago. The 1996 champion has not been as quick as Montoya and was told last month by Chip Ganassi that he won't be renewed for 2001. Vasser has not won a race since the end of 1998 and has not enjoyed a podium finish since Brazil in April.

"My car was feeling a bit twitchy this morning," Vasser said. "We made the car a little better in the back and it felt pretty good to me." Vasser said he expects Sunday's race to be similar to all of this year's short oval races, meaning passing will be difficult.

"I think it'll be similar to the races we've had on the short ovals all year," Vasser remarked. "It may be a little easier to pass than at Chicago because there's a little more room here to make a slingshot move. You have to remember the times are so close. You've got 14 guys covered by half a second here and when you get that many cars running that close it's just tough to pass.

"I think it's going to be critical to remain in the front of the pack," Vasser added. "If you lose track position and get stuck back in the pack, even if you have the fastest car you'll be unable to make it through."

Vasser was asked if he thinks his good qualifying run will help his quest for a new ride next year. "I don't think this will have any effect on any team owners who might be looking at me," Vasser said. "I hope they have a wider view. I believe when the car is good I have no problem going fast. I'm looking forward to a new environment. Some new people and a new place will bring some consistency to my performances."

Paul Tracy was the only one of the top three championship contenders to qualify among the top 10 at St Louis. Tracy qualified third with team mate Dario Franchitti fourth so that Team Ganassi shares the front row and Team Green are paired together on row two.

"This was a good showing for both me and Dario," Tracy said. "We struggled this morning. The car was well balanced but I just couldn't get a clean lap in. Most of the key competitors in the championship are pretty far back which is good for us. We've got to make sure we have good pitstops and get a good finish."

Tracy agreed with Vasser's assessment of the race and also said it will important for the drivers to take off their transmissions tomorrow because the St Louis oval requires downshifting for turns one and three.

"Like Jimmy says, track position will be very important tomorrow," Tracy said. "You'll want to be at the front of the pack for any restarts, not stuck in the back. It will also be important to take care of the equipment, and to not miss a downshift and run wide. If you do that it takes two or three laps to make up for lost time and get back into your rhythm."

Patrick Carpentier qualified fifth behind Tracy and Franchitti with Tony Kanann's an impessive sixth, fastest Mercedes-Benz driver in the field. Adrian Fernandez qualified seventh and continues to keep himself in the championship hunt through ultra-consistent performances. Fernandez is fourth in the championship, just 14 points behind championship leader Gil de Ferran.

The top 10 in qualifying at St Louis were completed by Alex Tagliani, Laguna Seca winner Helio Castroneves and Cristiano da Matta.

Castroneves and teammate Gil de Ferran thought they were going to qualfiy considerably better but Castroneves wound up ninth and de Ferran 14th. Castroneves complained about an overall lack of grip while championship leader de Ferran found his car very loose, almost hitting the wall on one of his qualifying laps.

"I was surprised the car was so loose," de Ferran said. "I was slow on my first lap so I adjusted the weight jacker and went for it on the second lap, but the car went way loose in turn two and I had a big moment when I got on the power. We would like to be starting further up the grid but I feel we've got a good car for the race, so we'll see what happens."

Michael Andretti, second in championship points to de Ferran, qualified 15th, less than six-tenths of a second slower than poleman Montoya. This equals Andretti's worst qualifying run of the year and is the fourth time this season he's qualified 15th.

"We had too much push in qualifying setup," Andretti said, "but the car is good in race trim. As far back as we are starting means we'll have to gamble again in pit strategy and I don't like doing that. It works against you more than it works for you but maybe the odds will be with us since we've had a couple of bad experiences recently. The pressure is on and we're going to have to fight hard for every single point."

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Montoya quickest on day one at St Louis

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