Less than a month after resuming his racing career following his exoneration from tax evasion charges, Helio Castroneves has claimed the third Indianapolis 500 pole of his career.
The Brazilian, who won the race in 2001 and 2002 as well as taking pole in both 2003 and 2007, beat his Penske team-mate Ryan Briscoe to the top spot, with Dario Franchitti completing the front row for Ganassi.
The result proved Castroneves' lengthy trial was behind him - and that a third Indy win is perhaps now in front of him.
"Being here is already special," Castroneves said. "Many times during the trial I thought about being here. That was my wish. To be here is proof that my faith didn't let me down."
Briscoe had held pole for most of the afternoon, with Castroneves' first run putting him third.
But Castroneves was not content with this and withdrew his initial time to take another shot at pole as the gusty wind died down with an hour and a half to go.
His gamble paid off in style as the Penske driver jumped to the head of the field with a 0.7mph advantage over Briscoe.
"This place is magic, man," Castroneves said. "It's just amazing. Ryan and I were really strong. A couple of times I thought it was going to be tough. When we were trying to decide if he was going to try to beat me, I was like, 'Don't make me make this decision. Don't go back out there.'"
Briscoe, already in second place on the starting grid, withdrew his time and went back on track with just minutes remaining in the windy, wild six-hour session. He turned four laps at an average of 224.083 mph, not enough to top Castroneves but enough to retain second place.
"It was pretty hairy out there," Briscoe said. "As trimmed out as you are, you really feel the wind. Every corner feels different. You have to get out there fast on the out lap, and your tyres are cold so you're sliding around. You wouldn't think so, but it's pretty hard work out there."
Franchitti will start third as his four-lap average of 224.010 mph from earlier in the day held up for a front row spot.
"We just didn't quite have enough today - certainly not for Helio," Franchitti said. "I thought maybe we had something for Ryan, but we caught a wind gust on the backstretch on one of those laps. We had some pretty interesting moments out there, but we couldn't make it any faster."
Graham Rahal will start fourth after improving his position with a late attempt, as Newman/Haas/Lanigan continued to show much better oval form in its second year in the IndyCar Series.
"On a day like this, just getting the car in the show is the main goal," Rahal said. "Last year this wind would have made me pretty nervous, but this year I just went through the motions and got used to it. It's great to have a run like this. It gives the whole team a lot of confidence."
Scott Dixon, last year's winner, withdrew his initial time the final hour but could not get the Ganassi car, improving only fractionally and remaining fifth.
Tony Kanaan was the top Andretti Green driver in sixth, despite having made a late switch to team-mate Hideki Mutoh's spare car after struggling with his own chassis in practice, and seeing his first qualifying run disqualified for running slightly underweight.
"We're not winning a beauty contest," Kanaan joked as he got out of his patchwork liveried car.
Mutoh himself was knocked out of the top 11 in the final two minutes of the session, as Alex Lloyd produced an excellent run in the Sam Schmidt/Ganassi car to earn 11th place. Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick qualified the other two AGR cars today, taking eighth and tenth, split by Will Power in the third Penske Dallara-Honda.
Mario Moraes continued his strong oval form to secure a superb seventh for KV Racing. His illustrious team-mate Paul Tracy briefly edged into the top 11 in the final hour before Mutoh eased him out again.
Justin Wilson could not quite make it into the field in the first session. His initial attempt was disqualified for running underweight, and he then fell just short when he tried to bump Lloyd out in the dying seconds of pole day qualifying.
Raphael Matos (Luczo Dragon) and Ed Carpenter (Vision) were the other drivers who came close to making the cut today but were not quite fast enough.
Former Indy winner Dan Wheldon was expected to comfortably reach the top 11, but crashed at Turn 2 on his qualifying run and had to miss the rest of the day.
The only other crash of qualification was Nelson Philippe's Turn 2 accident in HVM's car, which happened during one of the free practice periods between qualifying attempts. The Frenchman emerged unscathed and has been cleared to compete again.
Rahal's team-mate Robert Doornbos and Wheldon's Panther stablemate Scott Sharp both failed to run in qualifying after practice accidents this morning and on Friday respectively.
Many other drivers chose not to make qualifying attempts today, preferring to focus on tomorrow's session as they knew that they were not top 11 contenders.
Pos Driver Team Speed 1. Helio Castroneves Penske 224.864mph 2. Ryan Briscoe Penske 224.083mph 3. Dario Franchitti Ganassi 224.010mph 4. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas/Lanigan 223.954mph 5. Scott Dixon Ganassi 223.867mph 6. Tony Kanaan Andretti Green 223.612mph 7. Mario Moraes KV 223.331mph 8. Marco Andretti Andretti Green 223.114mph 9. Will Power Penske 223.028mph 10. Danica Patrick Andretti Green 222.882mph 11. Alex Lloyd Schmidt/Ganassi 222.622mph