Hornish Hot In Chitown

JOLIET, Ill. - Advantage Hornish.

Defending Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr. won the MBNA Pole Saturday for the Delphi Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, a good omen for success in the race.

It was the second career MBNA Pole for Hornish, and he won the season opener in March at Homestead-Miami Speedway after starting from his first career pole. Hornish also started from the top spot twice last season in fields that were determined by the point standings, and he won one of those races, the season-ending Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hornish turned a top lap Saturday at Chicagoland of 24.5528 seconds, 222.867 mph in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara. It was the 11th top-five start this season for Hornish, who is third in the IRL standings, eight points behind leader Helio Castroneves.

"The pole is great because we've been so close so many times this year," Hornish said. "It just feels good to be able to get back up there and to get a pole.

"It's not over by a long ways; we're really worried about the championship more than anything else. We'll just continue to do what we've been doing so far this year and see if it works out for us. When we start on pole and the people that we are running with (for title) are 11th and 20th or whatever, it helps out quite a bit."

The Delphi Indy 300, the second-to-last race of the season, starts at 1 p.m. (EDT) and will be televised live on ABC.

Rookie Buddy Rice will join Hornish on the front row. Rice qualified second at 24.6100, 222.349 in the No. 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., fastest in morning practice, qualified third at 24.6363, 222.111 in the No. 7 Corteco/Bryant Dallara. Billy Boat qualified fourth at 24.6811, 221.708 in the No. 98 CURB Records Dallara, providing an equal number of Chevrolet- and Infiniti-powered cars in the first two rows.

While Hornish won the pole, the other two members of the "big three" in the IRL championship chase qualified outside the top 10.

Gil de Ferran, second by one point in the standings to teammate Castroneves, was 11th at 24.8105, 220.552 in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara. A tough weekend became even more difficult for Castroneves, who qualified 21st at 25.0026, 218.857 in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara. Castroneves was 15th overall in practice Friday and held the same spot in today's morning practice.

It was only the third time this season that both Penske Racing cars qualified outside of the top 10. It also happened in March at California Speedway, where de Ferran finished fourth and Castroneves fifth, and in May at Indianapolis, where Castroneves won and de Ferran finished 10th.

"Our qualifying run was very disappointing especially since we are battling for the championship," Castroneves said. "The Marlboro Team Penske car ran well in the test here, so we were optimistic, but unfortunately we had to go in the heat of the day rather than in the front of the line.

"Now we need to stay focused because tomorrow is the day that counts. It's a long race, so we need to stay out of trouble and bring it home. I've got a great team behind me, so hopefully we're going to do some magic."

It was a strong qualifying session for IRL rookies, as first-year drivers took four of the top 10 spots, led by Rice.

Vitor Meira qualified fifth at 24.7269, 221.297 in the No. 2 Menards/Johns Manville/Pittsburgh Paints Dallara, Dan Wheldon was seventh at 24.7658, 220.950 in the No. 15 Pennzoil Panther Dallara in his first race as Hornish's teammate, and Laurent Redon qualified eighth at 24.7660, 220.948 in the No. 34 Mi-Jack Dallara.

The starting field is tight, as just .6112 of a second separated the top 24 drivers.

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