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Another pole for Helio Castroneves sets Glen track record

The track at Watkins Glen International is faster this year, but Helio Castroneves continues to be the quickest qualifier.

Today he'll try to be the fastest in the race.

Castroneves made it three poles in three IndyCar Series races at the Glen with a record lap of 136.021 mph (89.1919 seconds) on a sunny Saturday afternoon high above Seneca Lake. On the outside of the front row for today's 60-lap Camping World Watkins Glen Grand Prix (3:30 p.m., ABC) will be Scott Dixon, who has won both races here.

"It was a very good lap, I really tried everything I could, and it was an excellent team effort again," said Castroneves. "(Elma native) Ron Ruzewski, who is my engineer, he's always thinking a little bit here, a little bit there, and it paid off again. . . . Hopefully we're going to win from the pole."

Drivers have credited offseason track improvements for making the historic 11-turn layout faster, and brisk practice times forecast that the 2005 mark set by Castroneves (133.806 mph; 90.6688 seconds) would fall. An accident with Tomas Enge in that race left Castroneves 12th while fuel issues and a spin left him in a rainy race last year.

"[We need to be] mistake-free," he said. "Unfortunately we had our share of bad luck."

The starting spots are crucial for Castroneves and Dixon, who are sixth and second, respectively, in the points race. The bad news for them, and all points pursuers, is that leader Dario Franchitti will start third. Andretti-Green's Franchitti has a 65-point lead on Dixon with eight races remaining.

Castroneves and his No. 3 Team Penske car earned the top spot during IndyCar's Fast Six qualifying, in which the top six single-lap qualifiers battle it out in a 10-minute, European-style session (all cars on the track at the same time). All six drivers bettered their laps and all were faster than Castroneves' 2005 record.

Dixon posted the fastest lap during single-lap qualifying in his No. 9 Chip Ganassi car, but Castroneves quickly seized the lead in the can-you-top-this format on his first lap. The Brazilian came to the pits but soon headed back out on the track because Dixon and Franchitti (who had been the last driver to qualify for the session with the sixth-best single-lap time) were getting faster. Castroneves remained at the top of the speed chart the rest of the way, with his sixth lap winning his fifth pole of the season.

Penske's Sam Hornish, who ran out of gas in the inner loop that concludes the backstretch, will start fifth. Tony Kanaan starts fourth and Andretti-Green teammate Marco Andretti sixth.

Sections of three of the 11 turns on the 3.37-mile track have been converted from concrete to asphalt and some curbing was lowered, factors that allow drivers to go faster in those turns. The changes are in the sweeping Turn One, referred to as "the ninety" for its 90-degree turn coming off of the lengthy frontstretch, in the roundabout Turn Five known as "the carousel" as well as in Turn Six, the beginning of "the boot," a section that is not used when NASCAR visits each August.

"The track has definitely improved," said Castroneves, "so the rhythm of the race is going to be faster."

Buddy Rice just missed the shootout format amongst the top six, but kept some momentum going in his No. 15 machine despite being part of a smaller, two-car operation in Dreyer & Reinbold. Rice is coming off back-to-back top fives.

"Our car is a lot better in race trim," said Rice. "We really worked hard on that, knowing that we do not have all of the bits to compete for the pole."

It was not a good day for the two female drivers. Danica Patrick, who had posted the seventh-best lap during practice, will start 15th in the 18-car field after her qualifying effort was a second slower than her best practice lap.

"It's pretty obvious," Patrick said curtly. "I have a lot of work to, and I just wasn't fast. I'm guessing, being as far off as I was, I lost [time] everywhere."

Sarah Fisher, Rice's teammate, had been consistently off the pace all weekend, as her best practice lap was nearly 10 mph slower than Castroneves and 3 mph slower than the next slowest driver, Ed Carpenter. Saturday things got worse when she spun exiting Turn Eight in qualifying and her car had to be towed.

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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