BALTIMORE, MD—Will Power's quest to clinch the IZOD IndyCar Series championship this weekend moved one step closer Saturday by winning the pole for the Grand Prix of Baltimore on a day when more cars got off to a "Flying Start" on the treacherous Pratt Street Straightaway of the street course.
This time, it was the curbing that was installed to create a Chicane in an attempt to slow down the cars from hitting a crest on Pratt Street that sent Simon Pagenaud's Dallara/Honda off the ground in Friday's practice. The curbing actually launched several cars into the air including Graham Rahal's Dallara/Honda that came dangerously close to hitting the opening in a safety wall similar to Mark Martin's crash in a pit road opening at Michigan International Speedway in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race two weeks ago.
Justin Wilson crashed his Dallara/Honda when he lost control exiting the Chicane in the second group of qualifiers. Mike Conway made contact with the barrier after the checkered flag came out for the Firestone "Fast Six" session but was credited with a second-place qualification time. However, he will move back 10 positions on the starting grid Sunday because of an earlier penalty for an unapproved engine change.
The Chicanes should be called "Calamity Corner" because drivers in every other series competing on the 2.04-mile 13-turn temporary street course also crashed in that area including Firestone Indy Lights driver Emerson Newton-John and Zach Veach in the Star Mazda Championship race.
Newton-John was transported to University of Maryland-Baltimore Medical Center for further evaluation.
All of that made the IZOD IndyCar Series "Drivers Meeting" quite lengthy late Saturday afternoon as they wanted additional changes made to the Pratt Street straightaway portion of the course.
"We're reviewing all of our options but I haven't made a decision yet which way we want to go," INDYCAR President of Competition told Fox59.com after the meeting. "The drivers spoke about several possibilities including moving the Chicane and the walls but I have to go back and decide what we want to do."
Barfield and his crew oversaw the installation of the current Chicane on Friday evening in a lengthy process that lasted hours while an asphalt crew built the curbing into the race course. Conservative estimates on such a project are $30,000 for the materials, construction crew and equipment. And consider that as soon as the race is over, the curbs for the Chicane must be removed when the streets are turned back over to the City of Baltimore which turns it back into a public thoroughfare on Monday morning.
But through all the mishaps caused by the tricky course layout, Team Penske driver Will Power proved once again why he is the "King of the Road" by scoring the fifth pole of the season and the 29th of his IndyCar career, which ties him with Dario Franchitti for eighth on the all-time list. Power's other poles in 2012 have come at St. Petersburg, Brazil, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. It was his third-straight pole this season.
Power's pole winning time was 1:17.2709 for a speed of 111.116 miles per hour around the 2.04-mile, 13-turn course.
By winning the pole, Power gets one more point toward the season championship and now leads Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport by 37 points. Hunter-Reay starts all the way back in 13th place after his qualification session was shortened because of Rahal's crash. Hunter-Reay was waiting until the end of his session to lay down his hot lap but never got the opportunity when the clock ran out with Rahal's car still on the course.
"It was just minimal time on the track the last couple days," Power said. "We knew we had a pretty good setup. I was a little worried after practice we were only 15th, only got a couple laps. I was determined to get pole. I needed another point toward the championship, definitely helps. Starting at the front lowers the percentages of getting involved in an incident in the first lap.
"We need to focus ahead now. We got that out of the way and see what we can do tomorrow."
Power was one driver that had no problem with the Chicane.
"The way they built it, it was very easy to pick up," Power said. "I suggested that they put tires on the inside so you can't just run over them. You feel obligated, too, because other people are. So you feel like if you want to get through each round, you've got to attack that bloody chicane, take a risk.
"It's just a quick thing that was put in. It's a third-gear corner now. It's not bad."
Conway is credited with second place after running a lap at 1:17.4347 (110.881 mph) in a Dallara/Honda but will move back 10 positions because of the 10-grid spot penalty. Scott Dixon was third at 1:17.7497 (110.431 mph) in a Dallara/Honda but will move up to the front row because of Conway's penalty.
Dixon enters Sunday's race fourth in points, 55 behind Power. If he leaves Baltimore more than 53 points behind Power he will be eliminated from the championship.
"I think I probably got to take him out and continue on," Dixon jokingly said of Power. "No, we were obviously going for race wins here. We got to get to the end of the race and keep it clean. The day turned out a little bit better than I thought it was after this morning's practice. That's definitely positive. I think both of us, Dario and I, still have some speed in the car, which is good. Obviously, Will was very fast today.
"We have to try and keep it clean. Hopefully we're not avoiding any safety trucks at the start and can continue on."
Sebastien Bourdais was fourth at 1:18.1090 (109.923 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet followed by Franchitti's 1:18.2126 (109.778 mph) in a Dallara/Honda for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.
Canada's James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport rounded out the "Fast Six" at 1:18.3462 (109.591 mph).
Charlie Kimball had an outstanding qualifying performance of seventh but he will be moved back 10 positions because of an unapproved engine change. Bruno Junqueira, who takes over for the injured Josef Newgarden at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, qualified 10th but is the third driver in the top-10 that will be moved back because of an unapproved engine change.
That means Indianapolis's own Ed Carpenter, who served as a Fox59 driver analyst for this year's Indianapolis 500, will move up to eighth on the starting grid on a street course for his best ever start on a non-oval. He qualified 11th on Saturday.
In addition, Carpenter wowed the large crowd with a spectacular airborne jump through the chicane portion of the front straightaway near the famed Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Carpenter attempted to maneuver the tricky "switchback" turn on Pratt Street when his Fuzzy's Vodka machine hit one of the curbs and flew some three feet high.
Carpenter landed straight over the chicane and actually recorded his best lap of one minute, 20.496 seconds and a speed of 91.233 miles per hour to place 11th overall in the Top 12 second qualifying round. The qualifying placing for Carpenter was his best in the 2012 campaign.
"It's a funny thing about getting airborne at the chicane," said Carpenter, the only driver to finish each of the first 13 races this year in the IndyCar Series. "I was making up time in the chicane. So I tried to make up more time there and I just kept getting more aggressive through that area. You know it's a risky situation through that part of the track. Many guys were hitting the wall in that section. I just got a little too much curbing and the car went flying. Luckily we landed straight and I kept going. We transferred out of the first round of qualifying with a little bit of luck. But we'll take it. We haven't had the best breaks in qualifying this year.
"In the second session, we tried to improve the car a bit and I was pushing hard. We almost gained a couple of spots at the end. So it was a very good day for Ed Carpenter Racing and the Fuzzy's Vodka crew. It feels good to give them a good qualifying effort this time. It has been difficult this weekend because the track has been different with each session. That has made it hard for everyone. It's the reason you have seen so many incidents too. Everyone is trying to get up to speed so quickly with a small amount of time."
While there are many ideas of how to improve the Chicane area just before the pavement that was laid to cover up the train tracks for the Light Rail system, Franchitti offered a simple solution.
"Just move the wall in," he said. "I would imagine that would slow the entry and the exit down. If you want to race the curbs, that's not something we all want, just close the walls up, it would slow down your entry because of the angle, and the exit."
Another tricky area is at the end of the long Pratt Street Straight which is designed to be a heavy-braking area but it's very bumpy which will likely disrupt those cars that get too hard on the binders.
"From memory, the inside was pretty rough anyway," Dixon said. "I think to make this track a really great racing track, if they could re-seal the whole front straight, eliminate the chicane, have a smooth surface over the railway tracks there, a smooth entry into one, I think you'd have a really good passing spot there. Whether that's achievable, who knows?
"As far as for the race, it's going to be pretty tough."
That's an idea Dixon's teammate likes.
"I think the resurface all the way down the main straight, down into turn four, would be good," Franchitti said. "The bumps, they do lengthen the braking zone a little bit, so it might help. I don't think many people have gone down inside to see how big the bumps are. That will be the experiment tomorrow at some point."
While everything seems to be lining up in Power's favor to close out the championship with one race remaining, Sunday's forecast calls for rain which could greatly change the nature of this street race.
"If it was a full-dry race we would be in pretty good shape but I'll be very surprised if that is the case," Power said. "We'll just see what we've got. A street course in the wet is tough because of the walls.
"It doesn't matter how far back Hunter-Reay is on Sunday because if it's wet and a mixed up race that can help him out. I'm not even going to think of anyone else. I know what I have to do. I have to focus on the race, be mistake free and see what we get."
At the end of the day, Power hopes what he gets is the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship trophy.