ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There will be an asterisk next to Takuma Sato in the notation of consecutive Verizon IndyCar Series pole starts, but does it really matter to the veteran driver?
"I'm just happy to start on the pole," a brimming Sato said after earning the Verizon P1 Award for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with a quick lap of 1 minute, 1.8686 seconds on a quickly-drying 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit.
Sato, driving the Honda-powered No. 14 ABC Supply car, earned his second pole start in his second season driving for A.J. Foyt Racing -- and second in a row when the starting lineup was set through the three rounds of qualifications. He qualified first for Race 1 at Houston in October, and qualifying for Race 2 was canceled because of rain.
The start of these rounds of qualifications was delayed more than three hours as a mid-afternoon rainstorm cut a swath from the Gulf of Mexico to Tampa Bay. The March 30 weather forecast is promising for the 110-lap race, which will be televised by ABC (3 p.m. ET) and on IMS Radio Network affiliates, www.indycar.com and the INDYCAR 14 app at 2:30 p.m. James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport won last year's race by 1.0982 seconds over three-time race winner Helio Castroneves.
Click it: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg starting lineup
"Over the course of the winter, we did really extensive winter test program," said Sato, who started second and finished eighth at St. Pete last year. "Everything worked out really well. We had a strong package last year here, but obviously there's quite a few changes on the car: tires, twin turbo engine. To come this weekend, qualifying, very dramatic weather change as well. Very pleased the league and promoters make possible for the qualifying session this evening because otherwise I would have to start middle of the pack (based on final 2013 entrant points)."
Tony Kanaan, making his debut in the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car, was .2951 of a second back and was equally pleased as Sato about the effort.
“I think it has been like three years since I have been in the top six," said Kanaan, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner. "It feels really good. I can’t thank the Target Chip Ganassi Racing guys enough. A lot of people made a lot of comments over the years because we struggled so much in qualifying on street and road courses and nobody was counting on that. I like to be the element of surprise. Nobody was talking about us at Indy last year and nobody was talking about this weekend. Although this is not even half of the battle because this is qualifying. Front row, man it feels pretty good.
"It is a new team and those guys had a heck of a year last year and a huge disappointment on Dario’s accident and I still feel like this is Dario’s car. Those guys went through a lot and they gave me a lot of credibility when I replaced Dario. They made me feel extremely comfortable, and although we have only been working together for the three or four months, I feel part of it. Every one of them is part of this front row for me."
Four teams were represented in the final session. Will Power, driving the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car, had earned the pole the previous four years. He'll start fourth alongside Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay. Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon will start fifth and Marco Andretti will start sixth. He has started sixth or seventh the past five years at St. Pete.
Carlos Munoz, who will start seventh in the No. 34 car for Andretti Autosport, was the highest of the four rookies. Jack Hawksworth, making his debut in the No. 98 car for Bryan Herta Autosport, will start eighth. ... Seven teams were represented in Session 2. ... Kanaan and Andretti advanced from Group 1, when rain tires were used, to the Firestone Fast Six. ... Castroneves will start 10th; two of his St. Pete race wins came from the fifth starting spot. ... Juan Pablo Montoya, returning to Indy car racing for the first time since 2000, placed ninth in Group 2 of Session 1 and will start 18th in the No. 2 car. In Group 1, St. Petersburg resident and 2003 race pole sitter Sebastien Bourdais missed advancing by .1477 of a second. ... Hinchcliffe's car made light contact with the concrete barrier in Turn 4 late in Group 1 and will start 19th.
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