LONG BEACH, Calif. — Dario Franchitti arrived at Long Beach last in the IndyCar standings and off to the worst start of his career.
Despite the deep hole he found himself in, the four-time IndyCar champion insisted he wasn't worried about finding a way back to the top.
Franchitti's positivity paid off Saturday with a pole-winning run on the temporary street course in Long Beach. He posted his fastest lap right before the buzzer to bump defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay from the top starting spot.
"That last lap, just threw caution to the wind in a couple of places and I just got it," Franchitti said. "So it feels good, especially with a field as tight as it is."
Franchitti failed to advance out of the first qualifying group two weeks ago at Barber, where his car was decent during the race until a mechanical failure ended his race early. He also failed to make it to the Fast Six in the opener at St. Pete, where he crashed and finished last.
"We had a very fast car in Barber, but man, we really made a mess in qualifying," Franchitti said. "So today it was nice to have a really great car and go get everything out of it because it's been a really tough start to the season. You can always do better, can't you? And I always want to make sure I've left nothing on the table."
He did it on his final lap, circling the 11-turn, 1.97-mile historic street course in 1:07.2379. That bumped Hunter-Reay, winner at Barber, from the pole despite a lap at 1:07.2934.
"It stings," Hunter-Reay admitted. "This is unfortunate. To lose it by half a tenth is worse than losing it by four-tenths."
Defending race winner Will Power was third but misunderstood radio communication from strategist Tim Cindric and slowed on his final lap.
"I just took that one lap and backed off. Tim said `You're barely going to make it,' and I thought he meant on fuel but he meant the checkered," Power said. "Literally, barely missed it."
But Power wasn't devastated because he didn't want to start the race on the outside.
"I'd much rather start third than second. The starts in these races you never know what is going to happen. You are better off on the inside," he said.
Power was followed by Takuma Sato, Mike Conway and Helio Castroneves.
AJ Allmendinger qualified 14th – failing to make it out of the first round – in his second IndyCar race.
For Conway, it's a strong showing so far this weekend in his return to IndyCar. He gave up his seat before the season finale last year at Fontana because he was uneasy racing on ovals, and got a chance to return to the site of his 2011 victory when Rahal Letterman Lanigan put together a package to field a third car Sunday.
Conway has been fast in every session and seems determined to challenge for his second career IndyCar victory in what is currently his only scheduled race this year.
"The Rahal guys have given me a great car, and it's been really fast. The speed has been good," said Conway, who thought he might have had a shot at the pole but his tire pressures were too high in the Fast Six round.
"It's a shame," he said.
The Fast Six had an even split of three Chevrolets and three Hondas as Honda appears to have made significant improvement after getting shut out from the podium at St. Pete.
"Honda made massive strides, and I think Honda worked unbelievably hard to close the gap to Chevy," said Honda driver Franchitti.
It was another week of drama in qualifying as IndyCar penalized two drivers in the first round.
Scott Dixon, who would have advanced into the next round, had his fastest two laps thrown out for causing a red flag in Group 2. He spun and clogged the course, and Oriol Servia had to drive into a tire barrier to avoid hitting Dixon.
IndyCar also stripped Servia of his two fast laps, but his team appealed and it was overturned.
"I think we had a car to make the top six and I didn't have a chance to set a fast lap," Servia said. "Things are not coming easy for us, but I am very happy with how the team is working and how the car is working – we will show it."
Dixon didn't agree with his penalty.
"My car was still running," he said. "My car was partially blocking the track, but I was pulling away. It is kind of in the middle. It's a hard call. A tough one. I'm sure if Oriol had seen the yellows and slowed down, maybe he would have gotten around. We were solidly in the top six, and it sucks to go out that way. We will have to fight back from way back tomorrow."
Dixon was dropped to 13th in the group, which allowed Marco Andretti to move up into the sixth and final transfer spot. But IndyCar then ruled Andretti interfered with JR Hildebrand's qualifying lap by slowing in front of him in Turn 6. Andretti was stripped of his two fastest laps, and Hildebrand claimed the transfer spot.
Two weeks ago at Barber, IndyCar penalized Sato for interfering with Justin Wilson's qualifying lap. It prevented Sato from advancing into the Fast Six.
Wilson, meanwhile, never got to make a qualifying run Saturday because preparation of his car's rear wing ran over the qualifying session. IndyCar officials said in Saturday inspection that the wing was missing a required vinyl wrap, and Dale Coyne Racing couldn't get it repaired in time.