Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
NEWTON, Iowa — Takuma Sato and Danica Patrick will form an unlikely duo on the front row for Saturday's IndyCar race at Iowa Speedway.
Sato, a former Formula One driver, is chasing his first podium finish in the open-wheel series. Patrick, the series' biggest star, is looking for her first win on American soil.
Sato earned his first pole in the IndyCar series Friday, turning in a two-lap average of 180.375 mph on the 0.875-mile oval to finish just ahead of a surging Patrick. It's the best start of the year for Patrick, whose lone win came in Japan in 2008.
Though Patrick's initial reaction after averaging 180.210 was to wonder what else she could have done to grab her first pole since 2005, she was more than pleased that strong practice runs led to an even stronger qualifying session.
"It is what it is, and front row is still very good," Patrick said. "I feel confident that we've done some good things in practice so far with the car. I felt good out there, so it's nice to get back on the front row. It's been a long time."
Sato's previous best start was third last year at Mid-Ohio. He ran strong at Iowa a year ago before he hit the wall 73 laps from the finish.
Defending champion Tony Kanaan will start third. JR Hildebrand, who's best known for his final lap crash at the Indianapolis 500, will be fourth.
Series co-points leaders Will Power and Dario Franchitti will start fifth and sixth, respectively.
Sato, a big star in his native Japan, recorded just one top-10 finish as a rookie last year. He's done much better this season, highlighted by fifth-place finishes in St. Petersburg and Texas.
Winning the pole at Iowa just might top them all.
"It's an important day, and it means a lot," Sato said. "It's really a fantastic achievement from the whole team."
Though Sato and Patrick will start up front, everyone in the field knows that Franchitti's car will be the one they'll likely be chasing.
Franchitti won the first race here in 2007. After a year off to pursue a NASCAR career, he returned with Chip Ganassi in 2009 and blew away the field, beating runner-up Ryan Briscoe by five seconds.
A gear box issue ended Franchitti's string of luck at Iowa last year, though he led a race-high 69 laps before stumbling to an 18th-place finish.
The Scot also has won two of the last three races this season, taking the first of a doubleheader in Texas and winning from the pole at Milwaukee last week while leading 161 laps.
"I wasn't happy with the run, actually. The balance wasn't very good," Franchitti said. "Not too concerned though, because I think you can win here from fairly far back in the field. It's all about how good your race car is. Hopefully, we'll do a better job with that than we did with the qualifying car."
Franchitti, the two-time defending IndyCar champ, entered the weekend tied with Power at the top of the points standings. It would seem imperative for Franchitti to open up a lead at Iowa with road courses — which are Power's specialty — scheduled for five of the next six races.
Power's not the slouch he used to be on ovals, though.
He took the pole here last year, but wasn't much of a factor once the race got going, finishing fifth. Power finally broke through with an oval at Texas — though the fact that Franchitti was stuck in the back by a blind draw didn't hurt — and placed in the top five in each of his last three oval runs.
Kanaan, returns with his new team, KV Racing Technology-Lotus. His win last year ended a terrible run of bad luck in Iowa for the Brazilian, who'd never finished near the podium before beating out Helio Castroneves and current teammate EJ Viso in 2010.
Kanaan is usually fast at Iowa, but he's also usually involved in one dustup or another. His chances of contending were wiped out by contact in each of his first three races.
"We didn't concentrate a lot on qualifying," Kanaan said. "We started 15th last year and we won the race."
Saturday's race will be the first night race in five IndyCar starts at Iowa. The move appears to have paid off, as Iowa Speedway officials said they were down to less than 500 available tickets for the 35,000-seat track.
That's a good sign for the series, which suffered from scores of empty seats in its return to Milwaukee last week.
It remains to be seen how the track performs at night, though many of drivers think the later start will make the race more exciting for the fans.
It certainly won't hurt that Patrick, the circuit's biggest star, will be running up front.
"It's hard for me to say that we're going to have a great day. I think that it's better to be good than not, though," Patrick said.
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