Franchitti takes IndyCar pole at Iowa

The general consensus about using heat races to set an IndyCar starting grid was that while it wasn’t perfect, the idea itself has potential.

If the series goes the heat-race route again, expect to see some changes to the format.

Dario Franchitti won the third of the first three qualifying heat races in the history of the current IndyCar series Friday to take the pole for the Iowa Corn Indy 250.

Franchitti, the Indianapolis 500 winner, has two victories in four starts on Iowa’s short oval.

Franchitti, running in his first heat race since go-karts back in Scotland in 1989, was generally supportive of the format. But Franchitti wondered if offering more money and more points would provide added incentive for drivers and team owners risking their equipment for 30 heat laps instead of two qualifying ones.

”I’d like to see some tweaking. I think there’s some things we can change, but I thought it was really good start,” Franchitti said.

The starting grid was set by three 30-lap heats seeded according to practice times. The eight fastest in the last practice competed in the final heat, which set the first four rows for the Saturday night race.

The opening two heats seeded the rest of the starting grid.

Helio Castroneves will start on the front row with Franchitti, followed by 2011 winner Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Briscoe.

”I like it, but I don’t love it as much as I like it, if that makes sense,” Castroneves said. ”Honestly practice, it was a little bit more risky than actually the race because you’re really taking chances and not knowing what other guys are doing.”

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had previously floated the idea of a doubleheader at Iowa for 2012, with one race Saturday night and another Sunday afternoon. Those plans were scratched, but the series still wanted to try something new at a track that has been very supportive of the series since it hosted its first IndyCar race in 2007.

The idea was to add a little excitement to the day before the race, and even Friday’s late practice held added importance because the heat grids were set by the times registered during that session.

”I thought that I was pleased with the crowd here for the first time. I think that we have a lot to learn and I think we have learned. I’ll be interested in seeing what the team owners think of it,” IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said.

Putting together one of the eight fastest practice times was crucial, and Andretti and Franchitti topped a session that saw five drivers top 185 mph on Iowa’s 0.875-mile oval.

Franchitti then grabbed an early lead in the final heat race and held off Castroneves and Andretti for his first pole at Iowa.

Qualifying heat races have long been a staple of short-track racing at lower levels. In fact, perhaps the most popular and well-known dirt track in the world, the Knoxville Raceway, is a short ride from Iowa Speedway.

But some drivers expressed concern that heat races would increase the chance their equipment would be damaged. There weren’t any incidents though, as the cars had more room to pass and cleaner air to drive through because there were a lot less of them on the track.

”It was like a little bit of a practice instead of an actual race, and people seemed to behave a little bit better understanding that,” Castroneves said.

Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and E.J. Viso were all penalized 10 spots on the starting grid for unapproved engine changes prior to qualifying, and Simon Pagenaud will also move back 10 spots after changing out his engine.

Though it’ll certainly hamper their chances, recent history suggests they’ll have room to maneuver Saturday night.

Kanaan won in 2010 after starting 15th, and Andretti moved up from 17th to win in 2011, a victory that broke a five-year drought.

Rahal won his heat from green flag to checkered, finishing over 6 seconds ahead of the field, and Kanaan won the second heat by over 3 seconds.

Some suggested that all three heats would have benefited if Rahal and Kanaan had earned a spot in the final one by winning their races. That’s a concept Bernard didn’t dismiss.

”I think there needs to be points and money. I think it gives a little more incentive. And possibly take the winner from the first two heats and bring them into the last heat,” Bernard said. ”How we qualify for those heats might be something we take into consideration as well.”