Sato grabs pole for IndyCar season-opener

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Updated: 3/29/2014 9:56 pm

St. Petersburg, FL ( - Takuma Sato will start of the pole for the Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening race on the streets of St. Petersburg after winning Saturday's qualifying, which was delayed more than three hours due to severe thunderstorms.

During the final round of qualifying (Fast Six), Sato made a lap around this quickly-drying 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit in 1 minute, 1.8686 seconds. The driver of the No. 14 Honda-powered car for A.J. Foyt Racing claimed his fourth career pole in IndyCar. His most recent pole came in the first race at Houston's Reliant Park last October.

"It's a fantastic day," Sato said. "I really couldn't ask any more for a better start to the season. Really happy with where we are today. Over the course of the winter, we did a really extensive winter test program, and it worked out really well."

Sato qualified on the outside pole for the St. Petersburg race one year ago. He finished eighth. Last April, Sato became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race when he took the checkered flag on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. Since Long Beach, he has scored just two top-10 finishes, ending the 2013 season 17th in the point standings.

"We had a great season to start last year," he said. "The second half of the season was a lot of unfortunate problems and troubles. Everybody caught up. We were on the lower side of development through the season. We had a tough time together. But I think all the members on the team never doubted, and we should have ability to win the race."

Tony Kanaan, making his debut in the No. 10 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, finished second in qualifying, 0.2951 seconds behind Sato. Kanaan replaced Dario Franchitti in the car during the offseason when Franchitti, a four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was forced to retire due to injuries he sustained in an accident during the Oct. 6 race in Houston.

"I think it has been like three years since I have been in the top-six [in qualifying]," Kanaan said. "It feels really good. I can't thank the Target Chip Ganassi Racing guys enough. A lot of people made a lot of comments over the years because we struggled so much in qualifying on street and road courses, and nobody was counting on that. I like to be the element of surprise."

Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified third, while Will Power took the fourth spot. Power had won the pole for the St. Petersburg race the past four years.

Reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon placed fifth, followed by Marco Andretti. Rookie drivers Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth were seventh and eighth, respectively. Ryan Briscoe, who is back with Ganassi's team this year, and Helio Castroneves, a three-time race winner in St. Pete, completed the top-10.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who is racing in Indy cars again after spending the past 12 years in Formula One and NASCAR, struggled in qualifying, as he failed to advance out of the first round. Montoya, the driver of the No. 2 car for Team Penske, will start 18th.

"I'm still getting acclimated back to the Verizon IndyCar Series," Montoya said. "My team is still getting acclimated to me. If that process was complete, we would be a lot better. We are definitely making progress."

James Hinchcliffe, the defending race winner, qualified 19th after his car made slight contact with the concrete barrier in turn 4 during the opening round.

"Really mad at myself," Hinchcliffe said. "Conditions were obviously tricky, but I just lost it. It's a real shame because the guys have done such a good job. We were quick in the dry and quick in the wet until my spin...We've got the pace, so hopefully some good strategy will see us come good tomorrow."

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