INDIANAPOLIS - Strategy was almost as important as speed Saturday as Scott Dixon won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 with a big gamble by his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team.
Dixon and teammate Dan Wheldon, who took the second spot, both took advantage of Indy's unique qualifying format, which allows each entry up to three tries on each of the four days of time trials.
Dixon, who has three pole positions in five tries in the IRL IndyCar Series this season, got the biggest benefit of the team strategy, canceling out a four-lap average of 225.178 mph earlier in the day and making it pay off with four laps at 226.366 that held up for Ganassi's third Indy pole.
"I was part of that decision, so it wasn't really a surprise," Dixon said.
"We had been out testing, so we were confident we could go much faster. The tough part came later in the day, knowing whether or not we should do a third attempt (if we got knocked off the pole).
"One thing that was great out there, even on an average lap for us, we still had the field covered as a team. That just goes to show how strong we are this year."
The New Zealander's pole run came with just over two hours left in the session and only moments after Ryan Briscoe, the first driver to qualify Saturday, made his own gamble in an effort to give team owner Roger Penske a record 15th Indy pole. The team withdrew his earlier speed of 224.833 and Briscoe, who wound up third, put his Team Penske entry on top briefly with a run of 226.080.
Wheldon's earlier speed of 225.840, which had held the pole briefly, was then withdraw by his team with about 20 minutes left. The Englishman, the 2005 Indy winner, responded with a run that came up just short of his teammate at 226.110.
"The fact of the matter is, when your cars are good and your drivers are good, it's easy to make those calls that people say take courage," said Ganassi, who has won the 500 with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1979 and Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000.
"We've been playing poker here for a lot of years. Sometimes you're holding all the aces and sometimes you're bluffing. Just so happens that today we had a good hand."
Team manager Mike Hull added, "We had a clear plan. We knew that one attempt wasn't going to get it done. ... Truly, Chip Ganassi Racing came here to be aggressive."
Penske's other driver, Helio Castroneves, a two-time Indy winner and two-time pole-winner here, had his car pulled out of the qualifying line by his team earlier in the day because of gusty winds. When he finally made his only attempt, he also came up short at 225.733, good for fourth on the busy afternoon.
"Those (Ganassi) guys had strong cars in qualifying," Castroneves said. "They did good. We need to work a little bit better for the race and, hopefully, we'll be a little bit of ahead of them."
After a rain-marred opening week of practice for the May 25 race, there was a long line of cars ready to go when the opening time trials began at noon with the top-11 positions in the 33-car field up for grabs.
Danica Patrick, just weeks past making history as the first woman to win an IndyCar race, set the early pace, knocking Briscoe off the top spot with a four-lap run averaging 225.197 mph on the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
That drew a huge cheer from the crowd of about 40,000 at the sprawling speedway, the biggest spectator turnout for pole day in more than a decade.
Patrick set off a national "DanicaMania" in 2005 when she qualified fourth, the best starting position for a woman at Indy.
But Wheldon spoiled her storybook moment Saturday when he came out about 20 minutes later and pushed Patrick to the middle of the tentative front row.
Patrick, who was doing an interview in the media center during Wheldon's run, just shook her head and smiled when Wheldon's speed was announced. She got back onto the track later for some practice, but never made another qualifying run and wound up fifth.
Other Saturday qualifiers included Andretti Green's Tony Kanaan at 224.794, teammate Marco Andretti at 224.417, Vitor Meira of Panther Racing at 224.346, rookie Hideki Mutoh of Andretti Green at 223.887, Ed Carpenter of Vision Racing at 223.835 and Tomas Scheckter of Luczo Dragon Racing at 223.496.
Coming up just short was 19-year-old rookie Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, who was the fastest of the drivers transitioning from the defunct Champ Car World Series into the recently unified IRL IndyCar Series. His first run of 223.355 was bumped out and he cut short a second effort after three laps averaging just over 223.2 late in the session.
Others who had completed qualifying runs bumped out of the lineup included rookies Will Power, Oriol Servia and Mario Moraes - all transition drivers - as well as veterans Davey Hamilton and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who crashed on his second attempt.
A.J. Foyt IV and Bruno Junqueira, another transition driver, both spun without hitting anything. Foyt was on a warmup lap, but Junqueira had just begun a qualifying attempt. Neither made a second attempt.
Eleven more spots will be decided Sunday, with the final 11 positions to be determined in qualifying next Saturday. After that comes "Bump Day" next Sunday, the last chance for drivers to knock the slowest qualifiers out of the field.
With the entry list beefed up by the open-wheel unification, 32 cars took part in practice Saturday.