MADISON, Illinois -- Sam Hornish Jr., Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran have been nearly inseparable through 12 Indy Racing League events this season, and the competition between them has become so tight that they're marching in step in MBNA Pole Qualifying, too.
de Ferran won the MBNA Pole for the Gateway Indy 250 on Aug. 24, turning a top lap of 25.6967 seconds, 175.120 mph on the tricky Gateway International Raceway oval in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. It was the series-leading fourth pole of the season for two-time CART champion de Ferran, who led both practice sessions today before qualifying.
Series points leader Hornish was second at 25.7203, 174.959 in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves qualified third at 25.7232, 174.939 in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.
Defending series champion Hornish, Castroneves and de Ferran have occupied the first three spots in the point standings - in various orders - for the entire season.
Hornish leads Castroneves, 399-395, with three races remaining. de Ferran is third in points with 386.
"It's very important, I think, at this type of track to start up front," de Ferran said of the tight, asymmetrical 1.25-mile oval. "It's no doubt about it, there's still a lot of work to do tomorrow. At least it's a step in the right direction, let's put it this way."
The Gateway Indy 250 starts at 3 p.m. (EDT) Sunday and will be televised live on ESPN.
"It would be awesome to come back here and come out with a victory, especially with how close the points are this year," Hornish said.
Rookie Vitor Meira qualified fourth at 25.8824, 173.863 in the No. 2 Menards/Johns Manville/Pittsburgh Paints Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone in just his second IRL event. 1997 Indianapolis 500 Bank One Rookie of the Year Jeff Ward rounded out the top five at 25.8853, 173.844 in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing G Force/Chevrolet/Firestone.
Defending event champion Al Unser Jr. qualified 16th at 26.2348, 171.528 in the No. 7 Corteco/Bryant Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. Unser had only one qualifying lap after waving off his first attempt.
Early in the day, the garage buzzed with the news that the sometimes-strained relationship between Red Bull Cheever Racing owner-driver Eddie Cheever Jr. and Bombardier Rookie of the Year points leader Tomas Scheckter is on the rocks again.
Cheever moved rookie Buddy Rice to Scheckter's No. 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone this morning and withdrew the No. 53 entry that Rice drove at Michigan and Kentucky after Scheckter told Cheever he was not racing for the team at this event.
"After not showing up for a scheduled technical briefing yesterday, we called and were informed by Tomas that he was not going to participate in the race this weekend," Cheever said. "He did not offer any further details. This news was very shocking after the time and effort that both Red Bull Cheever Racing and TWR have put into preparing his car for this race, as we have done all season.
"We have a contract with Tomas through 2003, which we fully intend to enforce. Although this is a surprise, it will not have a negative impact on our performance this weekend."
Rice qualified 15th, with Cheever qualifying 18th.