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Will Power takes pole for Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

At 105.190 mph, Will Power breaks the track record of teammate Helio Castroneves.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

At 105.190 mph, Will Power breaks the track record of teammate Helio Castroneves.

ST. PETERSBURG — Will Power got his big break with Penske Racing here a year ago, filling in for Helio Castroneves during his tax-evasion trial and finishing sixth overall.

Today, the 29-year-old Australian has a chance to pick up some serious taxable income, having earned the pole position for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with a track record speed of 105.190 mph.

"Very good, (but) obviously the race is what counts," said Power, who ominously said Friday that the potential thunderstorms expected this afternoon would be good for everyone … but the pole-sitter. "Probably be a bit of mayhem (today) with the weather and so on. Happy to start at the front, but a chance to get hit on the first corner."

Much has changed for Power since his Penske debut here last year. He got Penske a win in Edmonton, leading 90 of 95 laps, but saw his season end in August when he broke two vertebrae in his lower back and sustained a concussion in a crash in California.

Penske gave Power a full-time ride this season as a third driver for the team, and he responded by winning the season opener in Brazil two weeks ago.

"I've never seen a guy more committed to his personal health," owner Roger Penske said Saturday. "He came back so strong physically. He took the risk with us. He's done a great job. He's passionate about the sport. He doesn't have a lot of other things in his windshield."

Penske, whose drivers have won three of five IndyCar races in St. Petersburg, should have a strong presence in today's race — Castroneves, who missed last year's race because of the trial (he was acquitted), is back and qualified fifth Saturday. And there's defending champion Ryan Briscoe, who starts 19th after a lackluster qualifying session. Tony Kanaan is in the front row with Power, the first of three Andretti Autosport drivers in the top seven.

The qualifying system had the top six cars after two sessions race for the final six slots, and even the battle for that was closely contested as Castroneves edged last year's runnerup, Ryan Hunter-Reay, by 0.013 seconds for the sixth and final spot. Had the two cars raced side by side, the difference would have been about 2 1/2 inches.

And while Saturday's qualifying saw picture-perfect weather under sunny skies, today's 3:45 p.m. start could be wet, with a 60 percent chance of rain late in the afternoon.

That could improve the chances of prominent drivers in the bottom half of the field such as defending IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti (13th), St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon (15th), Graham Rahal (16th) and fan-favorite Danica Patrick (21st).

"These races, it almost doesn't matter where you are starting, because so many things play out during the race," Power said. "You can be 19th and then win the race."

Power has picked up where he left off in Sao Paulo, with the fastest time in Friday's practice sessions, then the win in Saturday's qualifying. Could back-to-back victories be next?

"Just based on the pace all weekend, we would have been disappointed to not get a pole," Power said. "Very happy to get on pole position. That was the aim, and the big aim is to win the race, so we will be doing our best (today)."

Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com and at (813) 226-3346.

Will Power takes pole for Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 03/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 27, 2010 10:16pm]
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