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Takuma Sato earns Grand Prix of St. Petersburg pole

ST. PETERSBURG

When hours of rain made a slick track even slicker, the conditions became ideal for one of IndyCar's most aggressive drivers.

Takuma Sato topped 21 cars and mastered an ever-changing track Saturday evening to win the pole for today's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. His No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Honda finished with a lap of 1 minute, 1.8686 seconds (104.738 mph) to qualify almost three-tenths of a second faster than Tony Kanaan.

"It's a fantastic day," said Sato, a Tokyo native.

Sato's shot at his fourth career IndyCar pole seemed in doubt in the afternoon as rain poured on the downtown circuit.

Ryan Hunter-Reay said he feared the downpour might cancel qualifying. And after former open-wheel driver Robby Gordon raced the track in his Stadium Super Trucks series, he called the conditions "the worst I've ever seen in my life" and predicted a few IndyCar machines would end up in the fence.

He wasn't too far off, even after 30 minutes of sweeping and a USF2000 race tried to dry the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit.

Graham Rahal's No. 15 Honda got off course in the first three minutes of the first qualifying session and ended up near the Turn 4 tires. The 2008 Grand Prix winner starts 21st in the 22-car field.

A few minutes later, defending race winner James Hinchcliffe spun out. His No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda touched the wall in Turn 4 and ended up facing the wrong way.

Those two red flags gave St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais only one qualifying lap and left him steaming at the missed opportunity.

"This is a joke," said Bourdais, who was two-tenths of a second away from advancing to the second round. He starts 13th.

Charlie Kimball opened the second session by getting off course at the last turn, but the racing line finally dried out. Lap times dropped almost 14 seconds between the first session and the final one, though the top time was still more than a half-second slower than last year.

"That was a lot of fun," said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champ who starts third. "When the track's changing conditions like that all the time, you're searching for grip. Every lap's different."

And so was the pole-sitter.

Sato snapped Will Power's four-year streak of poles here. Power starts fourth, ahead of defending series champion Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti.

Three-time Grand Prix winner Helio Castroneves qualified 10th, and Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya starts 18th in his return to the IndyCar series.

Sato's success comes after a milestone but an inconsistent 2013. He earned his first series win at Long Beach in April and earned the pole at Houston but ended the season with 10 consecutive finishes outside the top 10.

He has been among the three quickest drivers in every practice so far and improved on last year's second-place Grand Prix start. Sato beamed as he celebrated the pole with team owner A.J. Foyt, the 79-year-old racing legend who owns the most Indy car wins in history.

"(Making) him happy's a difficult thing," Sato, 37, said.

Winning the pole for the season opener seemed to do the job.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Takuma Sato earns Grand Prix of St. Petersburg pole 03/29/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 29, 2014 10:55pm]
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