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Defending winner Will Power takes pole for INDYCAR GP of Indianapolis

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Will Power completed a sweep of Friday’s activities by taking the pole for Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

After being fastest in the two practice sessions earlier in the day, Power went out for a second qualifying lap and that proved to be the difference for him, running 125.761 mph at 1 minute, 9.8182 seconds.

“We had to dig deep, that was all I had,” Power said. “I’m really stoked, man. We just have to execute because it’s been a rough start to the season.”

It’s Power’s 51st pole in 192 career IndyCar starts in the series, giving him sole possession of third place in series history for most poles. He had been tied with Helio Castroneves, one of Power’s three teammates who drives for Roger Penske’s Chevrolet-powered team.

It also was his third pole for the INDYCAR GP — he won the two other times he started the race from the pole (in 2015 and last year’s race). His Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud has claimed the other two Grand Prix in 2014 and 2016.

Canadian driver and IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens looked like he would capture the pole before Power’s last-minute effort on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.

Even so, Wickens will start on the front row, doing so with a speed of 125.604 mph at 1:09.9052.

“We got both of our cars into the top six there,” Wickens said of his performance and teammate James Hinchcliffe, who qualified fourth. “It’s great to get P2, but when you lead the whole qual, you want to finish the job,” Wickens said. “You have to do a perfect job to get the pole here. … We’ve been doing a good job all year and we’ve been keeping it going. Tomorrow’s a whole new can of warms so let’s go play.”

Third through sixth were St. Petersburg winner Sebastien Bourdais (125.533 mph at 1:09.9449), James Hinchcliffe (125.281 mph at 1:10:0858), rookie Jordan King (125.197 mph at 1:10.1326) and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champ Josef Newgarden (124.144 mph at 1:10.7276).

It was a big bounce-back for Hinchcliffe, who struggled during the day’s two practice sessions before finding the right key in qualifying.

“It was a bad day to have a bad day,” Hinchcliffe said. “We had a really bad practice 2, had a massive braking problem and couldn’t develop the car at all.

Two-time Indy GP winner Simon Pagenaud qualified seventh (125.366 mph at 1:10.0382).

“I have struggled with this car a lot, the feeling of it,” Pagenaud said. “I’m slowly getting my driving back to the level you used to know. … It’s just a matter of putting things together. I’m very positive for the future, the rest of the season, we found what I need and it gives me a smile.”

2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, who was second in the first practice and third in the second practice, slipped to the eighth starting spot for Saturday’s GP.

“We missed it for qualifying, which was disappointing, especially after we were top-3 in both practice sessions,” said Rossi (125.244 mph at 1:10.1062).

Spencer Pigot was ninth (125.148 mph at 1:10.1601.

Making his first start of the season, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves didn’t appear to have much rust to shake off, qualifying 10th (125.104 mph at 1:10.1847).

“It’s been great,” Castroneves said of his return to driving an IndyCar (he’s racing full-time in the IMSA Weatherech Championship Series this season for Acura Team Penske. “Definitely a different car, but we’re looking strong. We did a lot of adjustments in one session to try and capitalize. We had nothing to lose.

“Starting tenth isn’t bad. We started before from ninth and got the podium. We were right up there, we just have to keep our nose clean tomorrow and have a strong finish.”

There were two major surprises during qualifying.

First was Graham Rahal, who qualified 17th (124.792 mph at 1:10.3605).

“Clearly I’m disappointed,” Rahal said. “It was frustrating to go out there and to lock up the right front like that. I’ve never had it where I went into Turn 1 and I couldn’t read the brake markers because the car was vibrating that badly. It’s disappointing because I think that we probably had a car that was quick enough to maybe advance.

“Was it a top-six car? No. But should it have advanced? Yes. We’re just going to have to work hard tomorrow and stay out of trouble. Turn 1 is going to be hectic tomorrow. Luckily I’ve got Scott (Dixon) by me. Hopefully he and I can take care of each other and go race.”

Which leads to the second surprise, that of Dixon, who will go off on tomorrow’s grid in the 18th position (124.860 mph at 1:10.3221).

“This morning in cooler conditions, the car wasn’t too bad,” Dixon said. “We took a hefty swing at it for qualifying. … We threw something pretty heavy for it and tried to go back a bit with the red tires, but we’re not where we need to be.

“We’ll get back to something we know that’s fairly decent and feed through there. Today, it just seems the heat made it worse for us against others.”

The fifth annual INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis will take the green flag Saturday afternoon at 3:40 p.m. ET.

We’ll have more info and driver quotes shortly. Please check back soon.

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Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”