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Tagliani turns heads, takes Indy pole

Special to FOX Sports SPEED.COM, MARSHALL PRUETT
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INDIANAPOLIS

The underdogs, the castaways and the forgotten had their day at Indianapolis on Saturday’s run for the pole.

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Alex Tagliani (bumped out of the 2009 Indy 500), Oriol Servia (without a ride in 2010), Dan Wheldon, (who lost his job for 2011), Townsend Bell (a once-a-year racer) and Buddy Rice (out of IndyCar since 2009), made the Fast 9 session and proved that the dominant teams and drivers can indeed be beaten — at least in qualifying.

And Tagliani saved the biggest run for last, taking the pole for the centennial Indianapolis 500 on the final run of the day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"We're playing in the big boys league, and we're trying to bring it," said an ecstatic Tagliani. "The next step is to try and win the race. I'm probably going to be pinching myself until I go to bed. It's been an amazing team effort. We have a great group of people and the additions with the other cars. I had good input from Townsend (Bell) and Dan (Wheldon), and it's been nice to work as a big group this week. I wanted this one so bad."

The French-Canadian open-wheel veteran had been fast all week, leading the time sheets on multiple occasions, and despite taking the best shots that Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske had to offer, the minnows at Sam Schmidt Motorsports shocked the establishment to place the Bowers & Wilkins-sponsored No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car on top of the leader board.

Next Sunday’s 2011 Indy 500 also marks the 10th anniversary of SSM's first run at the Speedway.

“I’m really lost for words," said Schmidt. "It’s truly huge. Whether it’s the 100th anniversary or whether it’s the adversity that Alex has overcome, it’s just really large.”

Tagliani's laps of 227.733, 227.488, 227.430 and 227.238 were fast enough to demote Ganassi's Scott Dixon to second place. Tagliani's 227.472 average was just slightly faster than the 227.340 produced by Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner.


The Cinderella Story for Tagliani and the SSM team at Indy on Saturday sent the crowds into a huge cheer when the No. 77 eclipsed Dixon for pole. (IMS Photo)

"It was kind of a strange day," said Dixon. "Even to see Helio (Castroneves) starting 16th is kind of mind-boggling. We missed a little bit. Dario obviously missed on fuel a little more than we did. He ran out going into Turn 1 and I ran out into Turn 4, and I think that cost me the pole. We lost nine-tenths of a mile-per-hour on that last lap. To come so close and to not get it was quite frustrating. Mistakes happen. That takes nothing away from Tagliani and what he’s achieved, though."

Third place went to Servia who sat on pole until Dixon and Tagliani moved him to the outside of the front row. The Telemundo-sponsored Newman/Haas Racing pilot recorded an average speed of 227.168 during his impressive run.

WHO'S NO. 1?

See the 2011 IndyCar standings here.

"Six months ago, a month ago, Monday — I would not have predicted we would have made the front row," said Servia. "I figured if we were really luck we would make the top 9. That was our goal. They gave me a great car, and we got all out of the car that we could. To have the three Penske cars behind in qualifying it just feels amazing and is such an achievement for the team."

Bell continued his string of top-caliber runs at Indy to qualify fourth in the second SSM car. Bell drove the No. 99 Herbalife car to an average of 226.887.

"This is my favorite racetrack and the best racetrack in the world, and I just love coming here," said Bell. "It's really just become like a pilgrimage every year for me to come here from California. It's great to be a part of it. I really want to win this thing, and this is the best car I've had so far. When I start doing stuff in the cockpit on the first lap, you never know how it's going to affect the other side of the track, so I had to make sure I could put a whole lap together in all four corners before I got more aggressive in (laps) three and four. Once we settled down, the time started to pick up. It's a really nice race car and full credit to Tagliani and his engineering staff that really led the program through last year until now. It's just a joy to drive the car."

Will Power — the only Penske driver to make the Fast 9 — did his best to hide his disappointment of qualifying fifth after starting in the middle of the front row in 2010.

"Our car was solid all day," he said. "And I was pretty trimmed out, so I don’t know what else I could have done. As a team we didn’t do that well, so we’re a bit surprised. There’s not much else to say."

Wheldon made the day for Bryan Herta Autosport as he qualified sixth in his William Rast-sponsored car. The 2005 Indy 500 winner benefited from the technical alliance between BHA and the pole-sitting SSM team, giving the three-car collective an amazing 1-4-6 in qualifying.

INDY, INDEED

Get more of SPEED'S IndyCar coverage here.

"I would have liked to have gone a little bit quicker and pushed Tag (Alex Tagliani) a little bit more," Wheldon said. "It was a lot more gusty than what it has been, and there was a difference in the wind direction. That means you have to be more on top of the controls in the car, and I think I handled that reasonably well. I made a little bit of a mistake on the exit of Turn 4 on the final lap when I just let the wind get underneath the car. To be honest, the speed is a testimony to this team. It's not me; the guys have done a fantastic job. I know what I want from the race car, and we're making it work. Being in a race car is what I love to do. My time off made me realize how much I love motor racing. I'm having a blast. We will be a force to be reckoned with."

Rice put his unsponsored Panther Racing entry seventh on the grid for the Indy 500, reminding everyone just how skilled the 2004 race winner happens to be.

"When we unloaded we had such a good car I knew the speed was there," said Rice. "Both Panther cars were fast all week. We just missed it a little bit with the gear[ing] and the weather."

Ed Carpenter kept Sarah Fisher Racing's dream month going by qualifying eighth. The fearless oval specialist set a staggering warm-up lap, but struggled for grip throughout the rest of his four-lap run.

"It was a great day for the entire Dollar General/Sarah Fisher Racing organization," Carpenter said. "We missed on the balance a little bit when we went back out for the Fast Nine, but we're still very happy. We're not here to win the shootout; we're here to win the race. We'll get back on track tomorrow and continue to work on getting the Dollar General machine set up for the race."

Dario Franchitti won't forget May 21, 2011 anytime soon after his Target-sponsored car ran out of fuel on his fourth and final qualifying lap.

"We were pretty close on setup with the Target car, but not good enough for the pole today," said Franchitti. "We were definitely good enough for third place. We obviously ran out of fuel at the end of the third lap and that was it. It’s disappointing for us, but I'm happy for Sam Schmidt, Allen McDonald, Alex Tagliani and their whole team."

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