NEWTON, Iowa — There may be no greater collection of grass-roots race fans at an IZOD IndyCar Series race than those that come to Iowa Speedway for the Iowa Corn Indy 250. So what better way to play to an audience of grass-roots race fans than have a heat race or three?
That is what determined the IndyCar starting lineup for Saturday night’s race as three Heat Races 30 laps each were used to determine the grid on Friday night. By the time the final heat race concluded Target/Chip Ganassi Racing driver Dario Franchitti won the pole by claiming the checkered flag in his Heat. He finished ahead of Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves, who finished second in the final Heat.
It was Franchitti’s second pole of 2012 and his first pole at Iowa Speedway. I was also the 28th pole of his IndyCar career and his second-straight after Franchitti won the pole for last weekend’s race during the traditional single-car qualifications with best two-lap average.
When is the last time Franchitti even competed in a heat race?
Go all the way back to 1989 in a go-kart race in Scotland.
The starting lineup for each of the three heat races was determined by practice times in Friday afternoon’s second practice session. But unlike some heat races, the winner of the two previous heats did not advance into the final heat. That is something that Franchitti and others might want to see changed if this format is used next year.
“I think it could always take some tweaking, but in my view what I remember from previous years, there were more people in the stands tonight than any other qualifying day I’ve seen,” Franchitti said. “So that is a bonus. I think the races; certainly the second two were much more exciting than single-car qualifying. I would like to see some tweaking, there are some things I think we could change but I thought it was a really good start.
“Get Randy Bernard (IndyCar CEO) to open his wallet a little bit. Get some money for them to do this because all of the team owners are risking their cars and stuff. We could do a little modifying but I thought it was a really good start.”
Castroneves liked the concept although he would like to see a change made to the practice sessions that determine which heat each driver competes.
“Maybe we should do a qualifying one lap or two laps, whatever, to determine where you’re going to go for the heat,” Castroneves said. “If it’s 30 minutes or 45 minutes, everybody goes out there. So that is one suggestion. Other than that, it was OK. Certainly 30 laps I believe was enough. We were able to pass Marco Andretti but not enough time to catch Dario. There were not many cars out there that could catch a draft. But for the first time, it was positive in terms of trying and certainly if we are going to do it.”
Castroneves believes the 30 laps race gives him an indication of what to expect in Saturday night’s 250-lap feature although there will be some major differences.
“Traffic,” Castroneves said. “Obviously we didn’t get any traffic out there and that for sure is going to be a big part of it. We are not going to run 30 laps in the race without traffic; about 15 laps is when traffic will start and that will change a little bit again. I believe it will be much more competitive.”
To Franchitti, the real pressure came in the second practice session try to get the fast laps in to start in the Fast Eight. Once he guaranteed that he was in the final group that would determine the first four rows of the starting lineup then he could consider making his moves in the 30-lap sprint.
“Quite early in our Heat I was able to move up the track and the Target car really was able to make that pass on Marco to gain on him and the next lap, he was just outside and he gave me more than enough room and didn’t need any extra to pass him and I was able to gap the guys behind him, controlled it from about a second-and-a-half so I’m really happy with that,” Franchitti said. “So half a stint on the tires tomorrow it will be very interesting to see what happens as the grip goes away a little bit. I’m really happy with that and looking forward to tomorrow.”
Graham Rahal won the first of the three heat races which put him 10th on the grid. However, because his team changed the Honda engine he will incur a 10-grid position penalty so he will actually start 20th.
“Certainly, the car felt really strong,” Rahal said. “Now, we go into tomorrow night and let’s hope we keep that momentum. We know we have a real good race car. We’ll start 20th so we know we have a lot of work ahead of us but we feel pretty good.”
Tony Kanaan won the second heat race which puts him ninth on the grid but he also has a 10-grid position penalty for unapproved engine change.
“It doesn’t help getting a 10 grid penalty but we will just have to battle from the back,” Kanaan said. “We have a good car. It was nice having the 30-lap race so I can see how my car will react in the race tomorrow and I’m pleased with how it felt.”
The pole winner would have liked to have seen both of those drivers advance to the final Heat to provide additional incentive.
“It would be great if you saw TK and Graham stuck on the back of that final race,” Franchitti said. “But as a first stab at it I thought it was really good.”
Marco Andretti starts third in a Chevrolet for Andretti Autosport followed by teammate James Hinchcliffe. Ryan Briscoe rounds out the top five in a Chevrolet for Team Penske. The pole winner was in a Honda.
IndyCar Series point leader Will Power was sixth in a Chevrolet followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay in another Chevy. Scott Dixon rounded out the eight drivers in the final heat in a Honda.
Although there was little passing the any of the three heat races, Bernard loved the format.
“I thought it had some potential,” Bernard said. “I was pleased with the crowd here. We have a lot to learn and we have learned. I’ll be interested to see what the team owners think of it. Our starting positions need to have points and money for a little more incentive and take the winners of the first two Heats and bring them into the last Heat. The real question for me is Monday morning when we get our ratings putting that in front of the race itself if it escalates the potential of our ratings.”
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