De Ferran gives Team Penske first pole in 50 races

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Team Penske had gone more than two years and 49 races since its last pole position. Brazil's Gil de Ferran rectified that in his first start for the once-elite Champ Indy-car team.

The Brazilian driver earned the seventh pole of his CART career today, turning a lap of 25.942 seconds in qualifying for the season-opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami on the 1.502-mile Homestead oval.

That was good enough, by just 0.006 seconds, to beat the 25.948 run by defending FedEx Championship Series champion Juan Montoya of Colombia.

That was the closest pole qualifying result since Paul Tracy, then driving for Penske,led the way on the road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. CART scoring had to go to the fourth decimal place to determine the winner of the dual between Tracy and then-teammate Emerson Fittipaldi.

The closeness of the victory didn't bother de Ferran in the least.

"I thought we'd be in contention, but this was above my expectations," de Ferran said with considerable emotion. "This is a great feeling.

"I guess this pole means a lot from my point of view. These guys have had a lot of problems the last few seasons. There's a lot of emotional significance."

De Ferran, who won two poles last year while driving for Walker Racing, gave his new team owner Roger Penske his first top qualifying spot since Tracy tce. It was the 99th Champ Car victory for Penske and the last time his team has been to victory lane - easily the longest drought since the team was formed in 1969.

The troubling slump prompted Penske to make wholesale changes over theced drivers in his second entry.

He also gave up on his own Penske chassis and bought Reynards, as well as switching from Mercedes engines to Honda power.

Castro-Neves completed the picture by qualifying a highly respectable eighth among 25 drivers with a lap of 26.268.

A beaming Penske greeted de Ferran when he arrived at the team transporter, saying, "What a job!"

Montoya, who won seven races as a rookie last season, appeared happy enough with his team's change from Reynard to Lola chassis and Honda to Toyota engines, which have yet to win a CART event. His Target-Chip Ganassi Racing team has won an unprecedented four straight CART championships with the Reynard-Honda combination.

"The car was perfect and I can tell you, the Toyota is right there, right in the money," the confident 24-year-old driver said. "I'm looking forward to having the first win with Toyota. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Ford-powered Reynards took positions three through seven for Sunday's 150-lap, 362-kilometer (225-mile) race. Mexico's Adrian Fernandez was third at 26.042, followed by Canadian rookie Alex Tagliani at 26.114, CART rookie and 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner Kenny Brack of Sweden at 26.146, American Michael Andretti at 26.175 and Robert Moreno of Brazil in 26.236.

Italy's Max Papis, Brack's Team Rahal teammate, was considered one of the prequalifying favorites, but wound up 13th at 26.432 after nearly crashing during his run on the windy afternoon.

"It was like having someone pushing the car sideways in the turn," Papis said of the gusty winds.

England's Mark Blundell did crash his primary car in qualifying, but came back out with his backup Reynard-Mercedes and put it in the 16th position at 26.616.

Scotsman Dario Franchitti, who tied Montoya for the points lead last year only to lose the title because he had fewer victories (two), continued to struggle. He qualified 22nd at 26.802.

Franchitti is coming back from a broken pelvis and a hard blow to the head in a crash February 9 during testing on this same track. But he said the injuries have nothing to do with his disheartening performance.

"Physically, I'm fine," he said. "The only time I feel pain is when I look at the time sheets."