Steeped in the worst start of his Indycar career, Dario Franchitti needs a break. Any kind of break. If the three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion is going to turn his season around and make a run at a fourth championship, it will have to start this weekend.
And he's in a great position to do it.
In a season in which Franchitti sits dead last in the standings after two 25th-place finishes, Franchitti will start on pole for the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
When the 80-lap race begins, Franchitti will be eyeing his 32nd career victory and his 10th from the No. 1 starting spot.
Franchitti stole the top position from defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay on his final lap of the Fast Six qualifying by 6/100ths of a second with a time 1 minute 7.2379 seconds around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street course. That's an average speed of 105.369 mph.
"That meant a lot," Franchitti said of winning the pole and apparently breaking his slump. "We had a very fast race car at Barber (Motorsports Park) but made a mess of qualifying. Tonight it was nice to have a great car and get everything out of it. It's been a tough start to the season, especially for the 10 (car) but for everybody (at Target Chip Ganassi Racing).
"You want to leave nothing on the table. Those guys (at the shop) take care of their end of things and I'll try to take care of mine. It takes a lot of focus, and sometimes I'm not the funnest person."
It will be the 250th career Indycar start for Franchitti, but it's his first pole on the famed Long Beach course.
"I remember starting next to T.K. (Tony Kanaan) about 50 years ago," the 39-year-old Scot joked.
Actually, it was 1999 while racing in Champ Car that Franchitti started on the front row. He finished second in 1998 and 1999, and won the race in 2009.
It is the 30th pole of Franchitti's career, breaking a tie with Will Power, and moves him alone into eighth all-time, one behind Sebastien Bourdais and two behind Michael Andretti. He will have 16 more chances this season to move up the list.
Among the top six drivers who reached the third round of knockout qualifying, the only one who hasn't won at Long Beach is Takuma Sato, who qualified fourth and will start on the outside of Power, who won in 2008 and 2012.
Mike Conway, in his first start in the IndyCar Series since announcing the last week of the 2012 season he would no longer race on ovals, qualified fifth. He had been no worse than third-fastest in any practice session. Right now, this is the only race he is scheduled to drive.
"I thought we had a bit more in Q3, but if you'd have said we would start fifth before the weekend, I'd be happy," said Conway, who won the 2011 race. "All in all, fifth at this place is a pretty good day."
Helio Castroneves, who led all 82 laps in the 2001 race, will start sixth.
Franchitti said the threat in the race extends beyond the top six drivers, though.
"Not just these guys, either," Franchitti said. "That's the thing, it's everyone."
Hunter-Reay agreed, but the former Orange County resident pointed out a particular fear of one driver.
"I'm a little concerned about Conway though," Hunter-Reay said. "He waits until, like, 10 laps to go and then all of a sudden pulls out something and passes everybody."
"I'll try to do the same again," quipped Conway, who passed Ryan Briscoe with 14 laps remaining to win this race two years ago, eliciting laughter in the press room.
Responded Franchitti: "I was one of the guys he drove past."
Charlie Kimball of Camarillo, after finishing fourth at Barber, will start ninth. Another California A.J. Allmendinger, in his second open wheel race since 2006, will start 14th. Allmendinger, driving two races for owner Roger Penske before taking on the Indianapolis 500, began racing full-time in NASCAR in 2007.
Some outstanding drivers will be in the bottom half of the field, including three-time winner Bourdais, who starts 15th after failing to advance out of the first round of qualifying.
The last three drivers in the field would be serious threats to win if they weren't starting 25th, 26th and 27th respectively.
Justin Wilson failed to record a lap in the first round of qualifying, Marco Andretti was penalized for blocking, and Scott Dixon was penalized his fastest lap for bringing out a red flag.
Dixon recorded a time that would have advanced him into the second round of qualifying.
It looked for awhile like they would be joined at the rear by Santa Monica resident Oriol Servia, who was initially assessed a penalty for his role in the red flag created when Dixon spun in Turn one and completely blocked the racing line. Coming up on Dixon on what would ahve been his fast lap, Servia at the last instant drove his car into the tires rather than T-boning the helpess Dixon.
IndyCar rescinded the penalty after an appeal by Servia's team, Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Servia will start 22nd instead of 27th.
In more than 200 career starts, Dixon has qualified 20th or worse fewer than a half-dozen times. It is his worst starting position ever in the IndyCar Series.
Dixon goes into the 1:30 p.m race, which can be seen on NBC Sports Network, trailing Castroneves by nine points in the championship. Hunter-Reay is third at minus-13 and Andretti is fourth at minus-18.