If today's Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix is as exciting as the qualifying, it's going to be one fun race.
After a topsy-turvy qualifying session Saturday afternoon, Helio Castroneves earned the pole for today's Indy Racing League event (3:30 p.m., Ch. 7), which marks the return of open-wheel racing at Watkins Glen International. Castroneves recorded the fastest lap around the historic track in 1 minute, 30.6688 seconds (133.806 mph) to earn his 18th career Indy Car pole.
"It's going to be the same intensity, the same competition," as the frenzied qualifying, said Castroneves, the driver known as Spider-Man for his postrace fence-climbing celebrations, particularly the ones after his Indianapolis 500 victories in 2001 and 2002. "It's going to be fast-paced, no doubt about it."
Castroneves had posted the fastest times in practice sessions Friday and Saturday morning in his No. 3 Team Penske car with a Dallara chassis and Toyota engine. After recording the third-best single-lap qualifying lap Saturday afternoon, the jovial Brazilian improved to the top of the board as the six fastest cars battled it out together on the track during a separate, 10-minute session.
The IRL's "fast six" qualifying format, used for the first time this season and only at the three non-oval events, saw all six drivers increase their speed, some more than others. New Zealand's Scott Dixon had the fastest single-lap run (1:31.4016; 132.733 mph), followed by -- all within one second -- Castroneves, Brazil's Tony Kanaan, Scotland's Dario Franchitti, Italy's Giorgio Pantano and Canada's Patrick Carpentier.
"When you go for the single-lap qualifying, you want to be sure you put it in the top six," said Castroneves, whose single-lap effort was 1:31.4757 (132.625 mph). "I was taking it easy to make sure we were in the top six. But when you get to the top six, man, you're going for it.
"When I got my pole lap, the track was getting better, and I said, 'One of those guys is going to beat me and I'm going to be so upset.' When I heard Pantano was on a run, I was hoping he ate a lot of macaroni today. We worked really hard and we got what we wanted."
Positions flip-flopped with nearly every lap. Dixon was in sixth at one point, going from first to worst, before finishing fourth. Pantano, making only his second IRL start after appearing in the only other road course event at Sonoma, Calif., jumped into the second spot with a fast-and-furious lap of 1:30.6903 (133.774 mph). Carpentier, who will start third, and Kanaan both spent time in the second spot. The top four all drive Toyotas; Honda drivers Kanaan (fifth) and Franchitti (sixth) make up the third row.
"The race pace is going to be very fast, and it will be tough to hold that pace for the whole race," said Carpentier, in his first IRL season after several with Champ Car.
Castroneves had the quickest lap (130.696 mph, 1:32.8258) after Friday's rainy practice sessions and bettered it Saturday morning by recording a lap of 133.772 mph (1:30.6915).
The official lap record on the same 11-turn, 3.37-mile configuration at the Glen used this weekend was 1:38.573 (124.174 mph) set by Andrea Montermini in a Ferrari 333SP during the 1997 Six Hours of the Glen. The mark for Formula One, which held races at the Glen from 1961 to 1980 under a slightly different layout, is 1:33.291 by Bruno Giacomelli in an Alfa-Romeo during qualifying for the 1980 U.S. Grand Prix.
The IRL, marking the first open-wheel event at the Glen since the Championship Auto Racing Teams' Watkins Glen 200 won by Rick Mears in 1981, unofficially set a track record during practice in June when Ryan Briscoe (who is out injured) ran a lap of 1:31.7200 (132.272 mph).
Reigning Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, who clinched the IRL championship Friday with a practice lap, had a minor accident in Saturday morning's practice and qualified ninth. Wheldon will officially secure the title when the race becomes official halfway through the scheduled 60 laps (204 miles). Standout rookie Danica Patrick will start 16th in the 20-car field.