ST. PETERSBURG — Qualifying for today's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg featured a handful of surprises mixed with one inevitable result:
Will Power winning the pole.
Penske Racing's Australian ace won his fourth consecutive Grand Prix pole Saturday in 1 minute, 01.207 seconds (105.870 mph) to set a series track record for the third time in four seasons.
"We just have to be smart and keep heading towards what we've wanted for a long time, which is a championship," said Power, the three-time IndyCar runnerup.
Power's best lap around the 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit topped the time of 1:01.3721 he clocked last March. It also placed him three-tenths of a second ahead of Takuma Sato (1:01.5776) for the series' season opener.
"Will is outrageously quick," Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe said.
Just not as quick as some expected.
Power and others predicted earlier in the week that a new breed of Firestone tires would lead to 59-second laps. Instead, the lack of testing on the red tires and changing conditions led to unpredictable results.
Sato's No. 14 Honda will join Power in Row 1. The 36-year-old, making his debut with the A.J. Foyt Enterprises team, has only two podium finishes in three seasons in the series. KV Racing newcomer Simona de Silvestro made her first appearance in the Fast Six and qualified a career-best third in her No. 78 Chevy.
"I've never been in this position," de Silvestro said.
Neither has St. Petersburg resident Tristan Vautier.
The 23-year-old Frenchman qualified sixth for his IndyCar debut. Vautier has won his past two series debuts, taking the checkered flag in Star Mazda (now known as Pro Mazda) at Sebring in 2010 and winning the Indy Lights race here last spring to earn his ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
"This one is a little tougher," Vautier said.
A handful of the series' top veterans can attest to that.
While Hinchcliffe (fourth) and defending Grand Prix winner Helio Castronenves (fifth) lived up to expectations, a few big names from powerhouse programs failed to advance to the final qualifying segment.
Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport had one of the quickest cars Friday but finished more than half a second behind Power and will start eighth. Four-time series champ and 2010 race winner Dario Franchitti qualified 10th in his No. 10 Honda.
"It's frustrating not being up there where we want to be," Franchitti said.
His Chip Ganassi Racing teammate is even farther behind.
Three-time Grand Prix runnerup Scott Dixon was almost a full second slower than Power. The two-time series champ will start 20th after he couldn't advance from the first qualifying stage.
Neither could Graham Rahal, whose only IndyCar victory came on the streets of St. Petersburg five years ago. His No. 15 Honda will start 15th.
"It's always like that in IndyCar," Power said after winning the 30th pole of his career. "You can never predict what's gonna happen."
Except for who will win the pole in St. Petersburg.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.