Near-perfect lap gives Herta pole

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Bryan Herta felt the pressure after messing up the lap that was supposed to be his fastest in qualifying for the Indy Racing League's first road race.
"I couldn't afford any more mistakes," Herta said Saturday. "I knew that next lap had to be right."
It was.
Herta, considered a top road racer during his nine years in the rival Champ Car World Series, was almost perfect on his next trip around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit in downtown St. Petersburg.
He lapped the course in 1-minute, 2.51-seconds (103.665 mph) -- good enough to take the pole for today's inaugural Honda Grand Prix.
"I made a couple of big mistakes and I kind of got away with something," said Herta, whose first IRL pole came two weeks ago on the 1-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway. "I was just hoping that last lap was going to be good enough."
New qualifier
The IRL came up with a unique qualifying procedure for its first road race in its 10-year history, with each of the drivers entered starting with a single qualifying lap. The six fastest then had 10 minutes on the track to determine the first three rows of the 21-car lineup for the 100-lap race.
Dario Franchitti turned in the fastest time in the single-lap qualifying, trailed by Helio Castroneves, Tomas Enge, Herta, Sam Hornish Jr. and Tony Kanaan.
It wasn't a totally new experience for most of them.
Although this is the first non-oval race in the IRL's history, Franchitti, Castroneves and Kanaan also had extensive road racing experience in Champ Car, and Enge is a former Formula One test driver.
Among the top six, only two-time IRL IndyCar Series champion Hornish -- who won at Phoenix and leads the series points standings -- has had no big league road racing experience.
Goal is top five
"I still have a lot to learn with this car on a road course," Hornish said, grinning. "But I was really happy that we're in the top six. My goal for the weekend was to come in and qualify in the top 10, then pick off a few guys on the track and a few more in the pits and finish somewhere in the top five."
With only one set of Firestone tires available for the shootout, the teams that took part were figuring on a maximum of three hot laps.
"We expected the second lap to be the fast one but, after the couple of mistakes I made on the second lap, I had to run the third one," said Herta, who then went to the pits and waited nervously while Castroneves and Kanaan took late runs at the pole.
All of the top six improved in the shootout, but Castroneves came up just shy of Herta at 1:02.69 (103.36).
He was followed by Kanaan at 1:02.98 (102.892), Franchitti at 1:03.04 (102.794), Enge at 1:03.27 (102.426) and Hornish at 1:03.45 (102.125).
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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