But the real surprise was how the underdog driver on an underdog team perfectly executed the winning strategy while the big teams -- Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport -- short-circuited during the pressure of the day.
Tagliani was fastest in the first segment of qualifications that ran from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. but ended early due to brief rain. The track was dried, and the "Fast Nine" to determine the pole began 55 minutes late and adjusted from a 90-minute session to a one-time through the qualifying line format in reverse order to the speeds posted by the nine drivers.
That meant Tagliani went last after Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon made their four-lap qualification attempts.
And that's when it got interesting.
With Oriol Servia of Spain holding the provisional pole, it came down to those three fastest drivers of the day, and for Tagliani to pull out the pole, it was going to take quite an effort. After all, Franchitti is a two-time Indy 500 winner, and teammate Dixon won it in 2008 driving for arguably the best team in the series -- Target/Chip Ganassi.
No one expected Franchitti and Dixon to run out of fuel on their four-lap runs, but that's what happened.
The key to speed at the 2 1/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is to lessen aerodynamic drag so the car cuts through the air, making it as light as possible. That means putting just enough fuel in for an out lap, a warm-up lap and those four qualifying laps.
Franchitti hoped he was on target to knock Servia off the pole with three laps at 227.061 miles per hour, 227.038 mph and 227.031 mph. but that left him a shade under Servia's first three laps at 227.328 mph, 227.168 mph and 227.118 mph.
But on the fourth and final lap, Franchitti's car suddenly slowed as dropped to the apron, out of fuel.
Franchitti fumed after his car ran out of fumes. He climbed out, helmet still on, and stared down pit lane, his eyes searing through the visor of his helmet like laser beams, obviously ticked off beyond comprehension that his team miscalculated how much ethanol to put in his car. He went all the way to the garage without removing his helmet or addressing reporters but later spoke of his disappointment.
"We were pretty close on setup with the Target car but not good enough for the pole today," Franchitti said. "We were definitely good enough for third place. We obviously ran out of fuel at the end of the third lap and that was it. It's disappointing for us, but I'm happy for Sam Schmidt, Allen McDonald (his former engineer who now works for Schmidt), Alex Tagliani and their whole team."
Sitting in the qualifying line, Dixon admitted he was concerned about the same fate because his car had the same amount of fuel as Franchitti's.
Undaunted, Dixon took to the track and had three laps of 227.530 mph, 227.511 and 227.487 and was set to complete his four-lap run before the car burped and sputtered between turns 3 and 4 as it, too, ran out of fuel. His fourth lap was 226.835 mph, and the average -- 227.340 mph -- was good enough to take the pole from Servia, but could it withstand one final assault from Tagliani?
The answer was no as fans that came to the Speedway for practice beginning at 8 a.m. and concluded just after 6 p.m. cheered the Canadian on every lap. He didn't let them down, running a four-lap average of 227.472.
Dixon, ever the professional, accepted the disappointment and guessed that an extra quarter-gallon of fuel was all he needed to complete his run and believed it would have been close enough to possibly withstand Tagliani.
Instead of the pole going to one of Indy's Big Teams it went to an operation that makes the most out of its opportunities. Two years ago, Tagliani was bumped on the final day of qualification but bought his way into the race, taking the seat of Brazil's Bruno Junqueira.
"I had bad luck and got the luck to get back in the field at the end, but I felt the pain of pulling out of line and paid the price for it," Tagliani said of 2009. "Last year, I experienced the other side of getting into the Fast Nine. This year we were able to build on our group over the offseason, and it shows the potential this team has. When we unload fast, we are pretty much on the top. But when we unload and are not in the window as a one-car team it is pretty difficult to compete."
In 2010, Tagliani and a group of partners started FAZZT Race Team -- a single-car operation where he would be an owner/driver. But in the offseason, the team was purchased by Sam Schmidt, a former IndyCar driver paralyzed from the neck down in a 2000 Walt Disney World Speedway crash.
Schmidt didn't let that keep him from racing success. He started an IndyCar team for several seasons before focusing on the Firestone Indy Lights Series. Schmidt's operation has won four Indy Lights titles and five of the seven Indy Lights Freedom 100 races held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
After buying Tagliani's race team, Schmidt provided additional resources and depth to the operation and made it a legitimate contender at the world's biggest race.
"I've had some roller coasters in my life, but this is a day that is near the top," Schmidt said. "Obviously, my wife and I having kids have been really special. Leading the race here in 1999 was a special moment. There was always this burning desire to come back and finish what we have started."
In Indy Lights, Schmidt's drivers own 38 race victories. This year, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden are running 1-2 in Indy Lights with a third driver, Estaban Guerrieri, fifth.
While Schmidt is the owner of Tagliani's team, he has a technical involvement with several teams, including the No. 99 driven by Townsend Bell in an Indy 500-only effort. Bell also made the Fast Nine, qualifying fourth at 226.887 mph on Saturday.
While Tagliani and Schmidt could have been awarded the pole if rain had washed out the final segment of qualifications, the manner in which they did it as the last car on the track at the end of a very long day provided the most satisfaction.
"It was much more special to go out there and actually do it -- to beat them at their own game," Schmidt said.
It was a day to celebrate the little guys. The big guns misfired badly.
The miscalculation may have cost Dixon the pole, but starting from the middle of the front row still gives him a great opportunity of winning next Sunday. Franchitti, however, dropped from a possible pole all the way to ninth -- the outside of Row 3.
Servia starts outside Row 1, and while Newman Haas Racing was at one time one of the best teams, it has had to rebuild itself to return to prominence so let's count them in a little guy along with Bell (fourth position). Dan Wheldon is driving another one-off effort for Bryan Herta, and the 2005 Indy winner qualified sixth while 2004 champ Buddy Rice is driving an Indy-only car for Panther Racing and starts seventh. Ed Carpenter replaced Sarah Fisher behind the wheel of the car that Fisher owns and qualified eighth.
Team Penske had just one of its three drivers make the Fast Nine. Will Power qualified fifth at 226.773 mph. That fell far below the team's expectations. Ryan Briscoe crashed at 8:16 a.m., which damaged his primary car and forced the team to a backup. He wasn't fast enough to be one of the 24 cars eligible to make the 33-car lineup through Saturday's qualifications and must make the field on Sunday's Bump Day.
Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was attempting to win the pole for the third straight year but qualified a disappointing 16th at 225.216 mph.
While Team Penske was a major disappointment, it paled in comparison to the day of disaster for Andretti Autosport. Only one of its five drivers made the field, and that was 48-year-old John Andretti, who starts 17th alongside Castroneves.
Penske's four full-timers all missed the starting lineup, including Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Mike Conway.
Patrick's four-lap average of 223.837 mph was nowhere close enough to make this field. Simona de Silvestro, despite second-degree burns to her hands suffered in a Thursday crash, was cleared to return to the cockpit and made the 24th and final position at 224.392 mph.
"My body's shaking -- I was pretty nervous out there," de Silvestro said. "We didn't do many laps. A day ago, I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back in the car. I was really freaked out about it. But I think I made the right decision to get back in, and the doctors have taken really good car of me. After the crash, I was like, 'I don't need this. This is too crazy. It's way too dangerous.' You know, after a while you're back to being a race car driver and thinking, 'Nah, I can do this.' And you suck it up. This morning, I felt pretty good. Then I went to qualify and thought, 'Ah, I'm not too sure about that.' And especially when you're sitting (waiting to go qualify) and they're showing your crash on the screen. It's like, really? Thanks."
If Patrick makes the field Sunday, it will be the worst starting position of her career in the Indy 500 in what could be the final Indy start. That is, if Patrick decides to become a full-time NASCAR driver when her contract is up at the end of this season.
"I felt that we had a fast car not only today, but all month, and thought we would hit a 226 during today's qualifying run," Patrick said. "The car was really fast to start the month off. I was happy. It was the best I've felt here in a long time. I felt really comfortable with car, and it felt effortlessly fast, and it wasn't really slow until this morning. All I can think of is something we missed or something happened with the track, maybe, and everyone is putting a new set of rubber on, and it changed. We just have to buckle down at this point. I guess we are going to have to risk it a little more come [Sunday]."
Tagliani's triumph combined with so many missing the mark Saturday emphasized why the Indy 500 is so special. And while Tagliani's pole should not be a surprise because of how well he raced throughout the week, to see the biggest teams in the sport fail so badly was certainly the biggest surprise of all.