Indy 500 not only tests drivers' heads, but their hearts as well

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The quiet but talented driver from Auckland, New Zealand scoffed.

"No," Dixon said. "It doesn't pay any points, man. For a driver if you can say you won the pole for the Indy 500, for sure it's a very big accomplishment. But to be honest, not many people remember who won the pole. They always remember who won the race, not so much the pole.

Twenty four hours later, after Dixon took to the race course with 2 and 1/2 hours left in Saturday's qualifications to knock Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe off the pole, Dixon won his first Indy 500 pole with a four-lap average of 226.366 miles per hour.

Not surprisingly, his attitude about the magnitude of winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500 had changed.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet," Dixon said of winning the pole. "Indy for our team, our development, started well into the winter. I think all the guys on the team are adamant on putting up a strong fight for this year's 500. I think between the small group of drivers and obviously people like [team owner] Chip Ganassi that have raced cars before, it means a lot to them just because you're definitely right on the limit and giving it your all.

"It's definitely right at the top of accomplishments I've done."

The marathon six-hour qualification session played out under warm temperatures and sunny skies, which, combined with the recent unification of the IndyCar Series brought out the biggest crowd for Pole Day since the split began in 1996.

And at the end of what some call the fastest show on wheels, it was Dixon who heard the cheers from the fans after he achieved another big accomplishment of his IndyCar career, one that already includes the 2003 IndyCar Series title.

But there are many of items left on Dixon's career checklist, and one of them is an Indianapolis 500 victory. He came close last year, finishing second to Dario Franchitti in the rain-shortened race.

"They do remember the pole winner for these couple of weeks, but once you're the winner of the race, I think it overcrowds everything," Dixon said. "I think from a driver standpoint it means a lot to us because you know how hard you work for it, and I kept saying that yesterday, as well.

"I guess you get bragging rights for a couple of weeks, and that's about it. But I think starting on the first couple of rows is key to this race. If we can make it a little easier for us if at the start of the race, that's always nice. We'll just see what happens, but we see the big picture for us is still trying to win the '500' on the 25th."

Dixon, who was consistent throughout the rain-interrupted first week of practice and was considered a leading contender to win the pole, recorded the most consistent four-lap qualifying effort in Indianapolis 500 history. Dixon's four laps were separated by .0049 of a second. His quickest lap was 39.9656 seconds, while his slowest lap was 39.9705 seconds. The previous record was .006 of a second by Bobby Rahal in 1992.

"Today was a lot different because I think even on an average lap for us, we still had the field covered and I think that just shows how strong the team was today," Dixon said. "We could make runs today where we didn't think it was quite right but we could still be quicker than anybody else that tried to go out there.

"For a driver to know that you've got the equipment behind you and go out there and do it and you've got a clear shot between yourself and your teammate, that's a pretty nice feeling."

Dixon has long had the look of success since he arrived in big-time racing in the United States. He was the youngest driver ever to win in the former CART Series when he was just 20 years, 9 months and 14 days old when he took the checkered flag at Nazareth, Pa. in '01, a record that has since been broken by Marco Andretti in '06 and 19-year-old Graham Rahal on April 6.

When Dixon arrived in the IndyCar Series in '03, he won the series title in his first year and appeared to be on his way to Formula One after making short work of the competition in the United States. What followed was a disappointing season in '04 followed by a disastrous season for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in '05.

Dixon was able to survive that season and began to rebuild his career the following season, remaining in the title race with teammate Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr., who would go on to win the '06 IndyCar title. Last year, Dixon returned to title form and battled Franchitti to the last turn of the last lap for the IndyCar title before losing it when his car ran out of fuel coming to the checkered flag.

"I was lucky enough to sort of stick around and continue to be a part of the team after the bad times when it gets good," Dixon said. "I think Briscoe has been extremely lucky to get his ride with Penske, as well, and we found ourselves both in good situations.

"I think those years were tough, and you learn a lot from it. You realize the first year coming in '03, and I could have victories and won a championship, but it seemed a little too easy and you take advantage of that. Those two years really grounded me, and you've really got to be thankful, I think, for a lot of the wins that you do get and when you're on a good roll because it doesn't last too long sometimes."

After hitting a crewman from another race team with her car in an incident on pit road on Friday, Danica Patrick was in tears after the terrifying accident sent Chuck Buckman flipping over her car and onto his face.

Buckman, who was sent to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis with a traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage and a skull fracture but is expected to recover.

On Saturday morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Patrick's tears were replaced by a determination to win the pole on Saturday for the 92nd Indianapolis 500 but instead settled for fifth on the grid, the middle of the second row, after a four-lap average of 225.197 miles per hour.

She got some words of encouragement from fellow driver Tony Kanaan, who teammate at Andretti Green Racing who is the leader of the team.

"I came back and I watched the video," Kanaan said. "When I came in, she had tears in her eyes, so I hugged her and she cried a little more, so maybe that was a bad move on my behalf.

"I said, 'Let it go.' She was like, 'He has a family.' I said, 'It wasn't your fault.' I said he's going to get better. There is not a lot you can say. I said, 'You've got to keep your head straight.' I said, 'Go talk to his team, call his family.'"

Patrick, who addressed the media Friday night after the incident and said that she would not discuss the situation any further, was more interested in getting a chance to start up front for the biggest race of the season.

"Getting a pole here is like winning a race somewhere else," Patrick said. "I was a little bit worried going in (to the qualifying run) just wondering what was going to come of it because I hadn't done a full qualifying simulation. So that was a little bit intimidating. We obviously have a pretty quick car. It was nice to start off qualifying like this. My run wasn't perfect and the last two laps fell off for a reason, and we need to fix that.

"There's more speed in this car, unfortunately and fortunately. I'd love to say that this is the end of the road for qualifying for today but I don't think it is. It's called 'Happy Hour' because everybody goes quicker. It's going to be about keeping an eye on the weather, keeping your car balanced and getting in line at the right time. It's good so far, though."

Patrick didn't get a second chance, however, because with changing weather conditions, including an increase in wind, the team decided they wouldn't be able to go faster than the speed of her run.

"These are not super easy," Patrick said of qualification attempts at Indy. "This track is very difficult when the car is not balanced right. It's intimidating, it's scary, it's difficult. We run on such a knife-edge here. When you tip over the edge, it's very difficult.

"I'm telling you, I was on the edge."

Tony Stewart was the topic of speculation last week in Talladega when the driver for Toyota's Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR team said he is open to offers after his contract expires at the end of the 2009 season.

Despite his roots in nearby Columbus, Ind. and his starts in the Indy 500 from 1996-99 and '01, Stewart seems to have all but closed the door on those offers coming from IndyCar.

"There's part of me that thinks running at Indy and in IndyCar is a chapter of my life that is closed, and then there is the emotional part of me that says, 'Never say never,'" Stewart said. "I don't know if I will ever get in an Indy car again, but if that happens, it's obviously going to be a long way down the road because I have a lot of commitments on the NASCAR side.

"If I was going to come to Indianapolis again, I don't want to come and show up and run the month of May. If I am going to do it, I need to start at Homestead, and I need to run all the races leading up to the month of May to really feel like I am being fair to the team and being fair to myself, and have enough time in the car to where when we show up in the month of May, we are ready to go."

Stewart noted that when he is comfortable with the car and the people he is working with and can get up to speed, he could be a real threat to win the race.

But he can't do that if he is doing a one-race effort while driving in NASCAR.

"As long as I am driving a stock car, that basically takes that part of it out of the equation," Stewart said. "I'm not going to be one of these guys who just shows up and runs the Indy 500. I've ran the Indy 500; I want to win the Indy 500.

"I honestly don't believe in the era of the driver that you can just come in on a one-off race and do that. It's virtually impossible. You can't come in and expect as good as the guys doing it every week."

Just one day after saying he had no shot at finding a ride for the first weekend of the Indy 500, John Andretti was named to the second car at Roth Racing, replacing Jay Howard of England, who was told by the team he would not run at Indy Saturday morning.

"As a result of the days lost due to weather, and losing our chief engineer (David Cripps) days before the start of this month, we found ourselves behind the 8-ball," said Margaret Roth, president of the team. "John brings with him a wealth of experience, which can help us build two competitive cars for the '500.' Jay will be back at Milwaukee. He has our full support. He's a great driver."

Andretti, who has spent the past 15 years in NASCAR, had all but given up on this year's 500 after not qualifying Friday.

"I think with everything good that happens, there's always something with a little bit of a flip side," said Andretti before being named Howard's replacement. "I think with unification there's not an engine shortage, there's not a tire shortage, there's a car shortage now. So people are struggling to get extra efforts together. The people that already have them already have them locked in.

"The opportunity that I had put together in April kind of took a change because of some things. So, whatever. It's frustrating. Today hasn't been a good morning. Right now, my enthusiasm is pretty low because I really want to be here, and I should have just went to Darlington, to be honest with you. Right now, I just feel like a man on an island."

After making seven consecutive starts in the Indianapolis 500 from '88-94 and returning for an eighth start last year, Andretti will get at least one more chance, which is a lot more than he had just a few days ago.

Actor Paul Newman is part owner of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and was a bitter critic of the Indy Racing League when it was created in '94, which led to the CART split in '96. Now that the IndyCar Series has unified with the former Champ Car Series, Newman returned to the Indianapolis 500 for Saturday Pole Day qualifications and expressed his pleasure about the one combined series.

"[Reunification] was absolutely necessary for both groups," Newman said. "It is tragic that it didn't happen sooner, but it's good that it at least happened when it did. I think it is going to be a great boost for both groups.

"It's good to be back at Indianapolis. It brings back a lot of fond memories. We've won eight championships and come in second twice at Indianapolis but never won the 500. It's wonderful to be running against Roger [Penske] and Bobby [Rahal] and Michael [Andretti] and all those guys. It's comfortable.

"My favorite tradition was that it took a whole month. Indy started at the first of May, and you had your reservation at the [Speedway] motel. If you wanted [the room] for two days, you took it for the whole month or you wouldn't get it, and we're going to work hard to get it back to that."