It was a crazy afternoon of qualifying at the GP of Baltimore, but in the end the result was the same: Will Power on the pole.
Power, who went into the weekend with a 36-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay and 41 over Helio Castroneves, added a ducat to that cushion when he as expected rolled to P1 for today's 75-lap race. Power was no doubt the class of the field, winning the top spot by six-tenths of a second over Mike Conway, who qualified a season-best second but will incur a 10-spot grid penalty for an engine change.
For Power, it was his fifth pole of the year, and incredibly enough, his 21st in 34 appearances in the Firestone Fast Six. By comparison, Scott Dixon entered the day having made it to the final round 40 times and just five poles to show for it.
The rest of the Fast Six qualified in the following order: Dixon, third in points and 55 behind Power, Sebastien Bourdais, driving in a lot of pain after suffering left shoulder and rib problems after last week's accident at Sonoma, Dario Franchitti and James Hinchcliffe.
It was a bad day for Hunter-Reay and Castroneves, who both made tactical mistakes in qualifying that cost them a chance to move to the Fast Six. RHR qualified 13th as a result and Helio 16th, which will make their days that much more difficult.
What made the day exciting was a chicane that was added to the main straight after the cars were becoming airborne -- and very spectacularly by the way -- in practice on Friday. The drivers had said after last year's race they wanted the chicane gone and the series tried to abide by their wishes, but the light rail line that goes through the street made that impossible.
I give the series credit for giving it a try, but today's change added another problem as drivers ripped through the chicane in an effort to keep their speed up as they charged to turn 1. That led to seven cars jumping the curbs and hitting the wall hard with the left side. In the words of the great Tom Sneva, "they need to slow the cars down!", through that area so that it doesn't happen tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow, the race is going to be long and very physical. A true survival of the fittest, not only for the driver who can keep his (or her) car in one piece, but the one that can stay patient and mentally tough. The tight, rough course will also take its toll on the cars, so look for some yellows and attrition.
Winner: Will Power. The Aussie was the class of the field last week, and I feel like he could have put Ryan Briscoe away and won the race if that had been necessary. Not saying he gave the race to Briscoe but with the issues his fellow title contenders were having it wasn't necessary to do anything overly aggressive. A sweet wine glass is nice but a big trophy and a big pile of cash is better. Power dominated this race last year and will do it again, because it's a twistie and that's what he does.
I also think he wants to get this as close to wrapped up as possible, and not leave it to a 500-mile crapshoot at Fontana in two weeks. I think back to Homestead two years ago when he arrived with a 12-point lead over Franchitti then coughed it up when he hit the wall and damaged his car mid-race to hand the title to Dario. I don't think he wants to leave it to chance again like that.
Podium contenders. I have been so bad at this over the course of the season, but I'm going to keep trying until I get it right. I'm going to list five here: Dixon, because he is a money driver who shows up when it is crunch time, Franchitti, because he can drive with nothing to lose, Hinchcliffe, who needs one badly, Tony Kanaan, who starts seventh and has fewer cars to pass than usual, and add Hunter-Reay in as a darkhorse, because desperate times call for desperate measures. He is going to drive it like he stole it tomorrow.
Big mover. Graham Rahal was fast in practice but crashed early in the first qualifying session, putting him 23rd on the grid prior to penalty adjustments. Look for him to get at least into the top-10, if not better. Target Chip Ganassi Racing seems to like Baltimore, as Dixon qualified third, Franchitti fifth and Charlie Kimball seventh.
Shout outs. One goes to Ed Carpenter, who is normally a backmarker at road/street races but found the right combination to qualify 11th. Bruno Junqueira, driving in place of injured Josef Newgarden for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, was impressive in qualifying 10th, but will have to take a penalty for an engine change.
Milestone. Dixon makes his 200th open wheel start today, and his 177th with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. In his career, which started in Champ Car in 2001, Dixon has 29 wins, 18 poles and 96 top-five finishes. Let's repeat that: ninety-six top-five finishes. Dixon just turned 32 in July, he's still got a long way to go.
Grid penalties. Along with Conway and Junqueria, three other drivers pull detention Sunday: Kimball, Takuma Sato and Somona de Silvestro.
TV. Coverage beginson the NBC Sports Network at noon Eastern with IndyCar 36 starring Will Power, and the Indy Lights broadcast starts at 12:30. IndyCar pregame starts at 2 p.m. and the green is expected to fly at 2:47. Adjust your time zones accordingly.