Updated: Franchitti Wins Pole for Saturday's Iowa Corn 250
K.J. Pilcher, Reporter
NEWTON, Iowa – IZOD IndyCar Series brought the heat to Iowa Speedway.
The race car drivers were lukewarm to the new three-race qualifying format, but they certainly weren’t cold to the heat-race trial run.
When it concluded, Dario Franchitti reaped the reward of the different system, winning the final 30-lap qualifying heat for pole position at the Iowa Corn Indy 250 Friday night. It will be the best starting spot for the two-time race winner here and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion.
This was the first time IZOD IndyCar Series used heat races instead of the two-lap, single-car qualifying. It was Franchitti’s first heat race since 1989 in Scotland. He noticed it was one of the biggest crowds to watch qualifying.
“I think the races, certainly the second two, were much more exciting than single-car qualifying,” Franchitti said. “I would like to see some tweaking. There are some things I think we could change, but I thought it was a really good start.”
The field qualified for one of three heat races during two practice sessions. A driver’s fastest practice lap over two sessions placed them in a specific heat. The top-eight in one heat, even-numbered ranked drivers from 10-24 in another and odd-numbered from nine through 25 were grouped together. The top heat determined the starting positions for the first four rows. The even heat decided even starting positions from 10 to the end, and the odd heat set the odd spots, starting at ninth.
“Calling it practice, too, is a little bit of a misnomer,” Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver Charlie Kimball said. “It was really a qualifying session for the qualifying heats.”
Some of the changes bandied about were the winners of the first two heats compete for the pole in the final heat. Franchitti mentioned payouts could be offered for heat finishes. Practice may need adjusting. Franchitti mentioned the end of the second practice session was mayhem with drivers trying to make the final heat.
“I don’t know if I have any good answers other than I think we can make it better,” said Kimball, who qualified 17th but will start 14th after moving ahead of penalized drivers. “For a first shot, it was really good.”
Many drivers didn’t know what to expect, including 2010 winner Tony Kanaan, comparing it to his mother telling him he had to try a new food before he said he didn’t like it. Concerns about possible accidents turned out to be premature as all 90 laps total were without an accident.
“Well, I think everybody is using their heads as well,” Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves said after finishing second to Franchitti in the heat. “It was a good practice race for the race tomorrow, and understand your car. So, that’s probably why there was not many incidents. It was like a little bit of a practice instead of an actual race, so we were better understanding that.”
The heat races didn’t benefit everyone. Rookie Simon Pagenaud suffered engine problems and finished last. It is the exact worry of Bryan Herta Autosport driver Alex Tagliani, who said he wasn’t a fan of the qualifying alternative.
“This is a format that is ok when you’re a big team and you need the resources,” said Tagliani, who didn’t like the demand and stress on his team Friday. “If something happens in the heat race, what happens for the race? We don’t have a backup ready to go. I think it’s scary for us in a way we always cross our fingers and hope nothing is going to happen and hope for the best.”
Rookie Josef Newgarden approved of the heats, calling it cool and different.
“It was definitely fun,” Newgarden said. “I liked it. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Franchitti started the heat in second position behind defending Iowa Corn 250 champion Marco Andretti, who recorded the fastest practice lap of 186.041 miles per hour. He passed Andretti on the outside during lap 8. He maintained his lead, winning by a comfortable margin for his second straight pole. It is his best starting position at Iowa Speedway, despite winning here in 2007 and 2009.
“Quite early in our heat, I was able to move up the track and the Target car really was able to make that pass on Marco to gain on him and then the next lap he was outside and gave me more than enough room,” Franchitti said, “and didn’t need any extra to pass him.”
Franchitti didn’t cement his spot in the final heat until the final minute of practice. His last run resulted in a fast lap of 185.715. He parlayed that performance and some adjustments into a dominant victory.
“Well, the key was actually getting a clear lap in that second practice,” said Franchitti, who pitted for new tires with two minutes left in practice. “I thought the guys, Chris Simmons and the Target team, did a good job. We sat there a long time after practice, a lot longer than we normally do just talking through what the car needed, what was missing and that’s what we came up with. So, it was a good start and I think we’ve got a couple more changes to make overnight to go racing (Saturday) night.”
Castroneves also passed Andretti, who finished third, and was happy with how Friday unfolded.
“I’m starting on the front row,” Castroneves said. “That’s what I care about right now.”
Tony Kanaan was impressive in the second heat of the evening. He passed Tagliani with about 10 laps to go. Kanaan appeared to show urgency trying to finish as high as possible since he was facing a 10-spot starting grid penalty for engiine issues stemming from last week.
“We have a good car,” Kanaan said. “It was nice having the 30-lap race so I can see how my car will react in the race tomorrow and I’m pleased with how it felt.”
Tagliani led for nearly half the race, grabbing the lead six laps in. He didn’t contest Kanaan’s pass. The risk wasn’t worth it, and demonstrated some of the conservative apporach expected to accompany heat competition.
“There was no point to fight,” said Tagliani, who experienced some understeering. “We’re still going to start ninth, finishing first or second to him. Fighting at that stage was just not smart.”
Tagliani and Newgarden benefitted from engine penalties. Graham Rahal cruised to a victory ahead of Newgarden in the first heat but also faced the sanction. Tagliani and Newgarden moved up to start ninth and 10th, respectively. Kanaan and Rahal dropped to 19th and 20th.
The race will start 9 p.m. Saturday.
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