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Franchitti Wins First IRL Pole in Texas

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Dario Franchitti accomplished a series of firsts at Texas Motor Speedway. He drove his first IRL laps on the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked track during practice Thursday, then ran at night for the first time in his racing career during qualifying. The day ended with his first IndyCar Series pole.

``It's weird getting in the car and not being able to see where your feet go,'' Franchitti said. ``It took a couple of corners to get used to the shadows.''

Franchitti adjusted just fine.

With a lap of 209.609 mph, he took the pole position for Saturday night's Bombardier 500 from Buddy Rice. The Indianapolis 500 champion set the early pace at 208.755 mph, and it held until Franchitti was the 20th of 22nd drivers to qualify.

``It's nice to be on the pole for sure,'' said Franchitti, at 14th in season points the lowest of four Andretti Green drivers. ``There were a lot of people trying got go very fast, and we got it right.''

Franchitti is in just his ninth race for Andretti Green, for which teammates Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan are 1-2 in points. The former CART driver missed most of last year, and both Texas races, because of a broken back sustained in a motorcycle accident.

``I have to say `good job' to him,'' Wheldon said. ``That is something he has really earned.''

The top five qualifying spots were Hondas, including Kanaan third at 208.511 mph and Bryan Herta, the other Andretti Green driver, fifth. Rookie Kosuke Matsuura was fourth at 208.360 mph. Wheldon was 12th.

Franchitti's pole speed was the slowest at Texas, 13 mph slower than Gil de Ferran's top spot (222.864) for last season's IRL finale at the track.

Not counting the inaugural IRL race at Texas in 1997, when a pit stop was part of the qualifying run, the slowest previous pole was Mark Dismore's 215.272 mph in June 1999.

Rice is driving the No. 15 Rahal-Letterman car in place of Kenny Brack, who sustained multiple fractures in a horrific crash near the end of last season's finale.

Two weeks after Brack's accident, Tony Renna was killed in an eerily similar crash during a private test at Indianapolis. Those accidents prompted the IRL to make aerodynamic changes and go to smaller engines.

Texas will be only the second race with the smaller 3-liter engines. The cars also have a quarter-inch vertical spine designed to keep them from lifting off the track when they spin.

Qualifying speeds also were down at Indianapolis, where Rice had the pole at 222.024, down from 231.725 in 2003.

``I don't think fans can tell the difference of 10 mph. It maybe helps the competition moreso right now, and helps the safety,'' Rice said. ``It didn't take away from what the show was at Indy, and I don't think it will take away from the show here.''

Besides changes that have slowed down the cars, more than $1.7 million in safety improvements have been made at Texas since Brack's accident that left only his driver's pod intact. They were completed after the NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch races in April.

Brack's car went airborne after being bumped at more than 200 mph. It never hit the 39-inch concrete wall, instead slamming into and destroying a 12-foot steel catch fence near a section of empty bleachers.

The catch fence was reinforced and a new crash fence was installed atop the inside wall. The track also installed SAFER barriers, or so-called ``soft walls,'' designed to absorb the impact of crashes, that are in use for the first time this weekend.

``Nobody ever thought that a car would be up there in the fences. It's good they've made those changes,'' Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr. said. ``I think having the SAFER barrier at the track is a great addition. It's proven how much better it is for the driver.''
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