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Briscoe on Indy pole by a record-narrow margin; Penske's driver edges Andretti

INDIANAPOLIS -- Roger Penske's strategy beat Michael Andretti by inches Saturday -- 9.168 inches to be exact.

In the closest pole duel in Indianapolis 500 history, Team Penske sent points leader Will Power onto the track with two minutes left in the Pole Day shootout -- a shrewd move that prevented three Andretti drivers from taking one last shot at the pole and preserving it for his own guy, Ryan Briscoe.

It was a remarkable finish to a wild afternoon.

Briscoe was the surprise winner of his first Indy pole with a four-lap average of 226.484 mph. He completed the 10-mile qualification run .0023 seconds quicker than James Hinchcliffe. The previous record was set in 1970 when Al Unser defeated Johnny Rutherford by .01 seconds over the four-lap qualifying run.

"My name will go down forever for something that I won here at the Indy 500," Briscoe said.

It will go straight into the record book.

How close was the battle?

Everybody seemed to have an explanation.

When Hinchcliffe left the post-race news conference, Briscoe held his fingers about an inch apart and explained it was that close.

Hinchcliffe already knew better.

"It's a gust of wind, it's a shadow over a part of the track," Hinchcliffe said, before holding up his name card and explaining that was the distance. "I'm going to lose a little bit of sleep at how small the margin was to Ryan."

Eventually a series spokesman came in and blurted out the actual distance to the thousandth of an inch.

Nobody knows how to play this game better than Penske and he proved it again Saturday.

The iconic racing owner has now won five of the last seven poles at Indy and extended his own Indy record to 17 poles. Briscoe is the 11th driver to win a pole for The Captain, and it comes one week before Penske celebrates the 40th anniversary of his first career Indy win in 1972.

As usual, he didn't rely on conventional wisdom.

Penske's three drivers -- Briscoe, three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves and Power, the points leader -- spent most of this week just trying to crack the top 10 of the speed charts.

Some around Gasoline Alley thought the only IndyCar team to win a pole or a race this season was sandbagging.

Maybe they were. When Castroneves arrived at the track Saturday morning, it didn't take him long to top 227 mph in the early morning practice, and once qualifying began, it quickly became apparent this would be a two-team race between Penske's drivers and the resurgent Andretti team.

Still, most thought the battle would be waged between Castroneves and Marco Andretti, Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay or some combination of the four.

It turned out to be Hinchcliffe who created the most tension for Briscoe, who started putting his gloves back on after Hinchcliffe ran a 227.009 warm-up lap.

When Hinchcliffe's first qualifying attempt in the shootout ended just short, Briscoe pumped his fists and started trading high-fives with crew members. The scene played out about one hour later when the track was closed.

"I don't know how many times I've been here and I've been in both those seats before and the next thing I know, Helio goes out and goes 1 mph quicker than everyone," Briscoe said. "I'm just glad it's my time."

Penske made sure of it.

With only minutes left in qualifying, Power took one final shot at earning his first Indy pole. He wasn't quick enough to win the pole, but he stayed on the track long enough to protect Briscoe's advantage.

"It's just that sort of place," Power said. "I think in 2010, Helio punched out a megatime, I think 28.0. Where did that time come from, you know?"

This time, Briscoe turned the tables on his teammate and the rest of the Indy field.

And it was Andretti's team that made the big splash.

After last May's debacle in which Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti nearly missed making the race, Mike Conway failed to qualify and Ryan Hunter-Reay only got back into the field by jumping into one of A.J. Foyt's car, Andretti Autosport rebounded by taking three of the top four starting spots and putting the most pressure on Briscoe.

"There's three Andrettis in the top four, you tell me?" Hinchcliffe said when asked if Michael Andretti's team is ready to make this championship a three-team race.

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