Qualifying: Hornish powers to pole

Sam Hornish Jr demonstrated the potency of Chevrolet's new Cosworth-built Gen IV engine in qualifying at Kentucky, taking his first pole of the year in an incredibly close session

Qualifying: Hornish powers to pole

In the first event in which all five Chevy teams have the new engine, Hornish was clocked at 219.614 mph - the first pole position by a Chevy-powered car in 12 races this season. The pole was redemption for Hornish, who won the previous two IRL IndyCar Series titles with a Chevrolet.

The key wasn't just the extra horsepower, Hornish said. It was the proper setup around Kentucky Speedway's bumpy 1.5-mile tri-oval.

"You can put 300 mph on the straightaway, but if you can't turn it in the corner, you're not going to win the race," Hornish said. "You've got to have the setup, and we've always been good with the setup here."

Scott Dixon, the third driver out, held the pole early with his Ganassi Racing Panoz G Force/Toyota at 219.358 mph. Helio Castroneves' Toyota just missed Dixon at 219.309 mph before Hornish went 2 mph faster than he had in Saturday's practice sessions.

"We know that the race car is a lot more important than the qualifying car, so that's what we worked on in practice," Hornish said. "We know what we're going to do in qualifying - take downforce out, put less fuel in it, all the things we always do. We know what we need to do to prepare it for qualifying, so we spend as much time as we can working on our race car."

Hornish and Dixon will start on the front row, while Penske teammates Castroneves and Gil de Ferran will fill the second row. Three other Chevrolets - Robbie Buhl's, Sarah Fisher's and Buddy Rice's - will start among the first five rows.

"We're just happy to be part of the game again," Buhl said. "What does it feel like? We're excited and happy, but I think it puts into perspective just how tough it has been prior to this point. The hardest part about this up until now is knowing that we weren't a part of the game."

The controversial new engine - designed and built by Ford-owned Cosworth - has drawn the ire of some opponents. It was introduced by Hornish in late July at Michigan, where he finished second to Alex Barron's Toyota. Buddy Rice used the Gen IV last weekend at Gateway, but Saturday was the first official track activity in which all five Chevy teams used the new engine.

"Nobody has complained directly to me, but I've heard some of it," Hornish said. "We didn't complain when they were way ahead of us. You deal with what you have."

What they're dealing with now is a tighter field. The 0.537 seconds separating the 20 cars Saturday marks the closest starting grid in IRL history. Previously, the closest margin from top to bottom was 0.620 seconds for a 25-car field at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1999.

"I think this is good for the whole IRL series," said Al Unser Jr., whose Kelley Racing team switched from Chevy to Toyota before the start of the 2003 season. "I think it's good for Toyota and Honda. It's going to make the competition work harder to develop their engines. That's what competition is all about."

Dixon, who has criticized the IRL in the past for allowing the new Chevy, said he welcomes the newfound competition on the track. "I don't know where that Cosworth came from, but it sure was impressive," he said. "I think it's good for the competition, but I think we made the right choice at the start of the year. "

Greg Ray, who pulled out of the qualifying order when he lost grip while preparing for his two-lap run, returned at the end of the session with just one available lap. He recorded the fifth-fastest speed of the day and the fastest by a Honda.

Points leader Tony Kanaan will start 11th in the field, which was reduced to 20 cars when Vitor Meira crashed shortly before qualifying. He sustained a fractured right wrist and was not cleared to compete by IRL medical staff. Ironically, Meira had been the fastest Chevy driver in practice, hitting 219.449 mph, second only to Dixon and Castroneves.

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