ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The same driver will lead the field to the green flag through the streets of the St. Petersburg for the fourth consecutive year.
Only Will Power will have some new faces right behind him Sunday in the season-opening IndyCar race, with Takuma Sato and Simona de Silvestro qualifying second and third. Tristan Vautier, who will make his IndyCar debut, will start sixth.
A new cast of characters didn't surprise Power.
"It's always like that in IndyCar, you can never predict what's going to happen," Power said. "We don't know who is going to win, but that is the excitement of it. We've never had so much depth in the field of drivers. There are no bad drivers. You go through the field and you have 20 guys there, all of these guys can win.
"Given the right equipment and day, they can win races. I don't think enough people know about it, you know, how many good drivers there are in this series."
It was evident in qualifying with five teams represented in the Fast Six and only Penske Racing putting teammates in the final group. It was Power at the top of the leaderboard, earning his fourth consecutive pole at St. Pete by posting a best lap Saturday of 1 minute, 1.2070 seconds on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit.
"Good start to the year," said the Australian, who won his 30th pole to move ahead of Dario Franchitti for seventh on the career list.
Right behind Power was Sato, making his first start for A.J. Foyt Racing. Sato had never qualified higher than 11th at St. Pete before claiming a spot on the front row for the first time since Edmonton in 2011.
Qualifying a career-best third was de Silvestro, who had never before even advanced to the Fast Six round of qualifications. She's been among the fastest drivers all weekend in her debut for new team KV Racing Technology and can sense a huge opportunity ahead of her.
De Silvestro finished a career-best fourth at St. Pete in 2011, losing third-place to Tony Kanaan in the closing laps.
"It's really cool to finally get the results we wanted," she said, admitting to self-doubt during the offseason about whether she was up to the challenge of her opportunity with KV.
"I think it's kind of a big relief to know that we can be up front and be running up front. I think it's just going to make it easier now going forward because I know I can be fast and I know I have the tools to be fast."
James Hinchcliffe qualified fourth for Andretti Autosport and said nobody really had anything to challenge Power.
"Will was outrageously quick," said Hinchcliffe, who noted drivers are also adjusting to Firestone's new red tires. "I think a lot of people found it was sort of one lap was the magic lap. With the exception of Will, you didn't usually go quicker after that. If you made one little mistake or caught a guy in traffic or something like that, your next lap was significantly slower."
Helio Castroneves joined his Penske Racing teammate Power in the Fast Six and qualified fifth, then it was rookie Vautier, the 2012 Indy Lights champion, who marked his IndyCar debut weekend by claiming a spot in the Fast Six in his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry.
Vautier, who has won championships the last two seasons in the ladder series, won the opening races in each of those seasons. He laughed when asked if he expects to do the same in Sunday's IndyCar debut.
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