INDIANAPOLIS - Bruno Junqueira pushed the limits Saturday, winning the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 with a four-lap average of 231.342 mph.
The quiet Brazilian was the first driver to make a qualifying attempt and the first of 24 to make it into the field for the May 26 race.
Time trials are scheduled for today and again May 19. Once the field is filled, the slowest qualifiers can be bumped by faster cars until the end of the final round at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Being first is not easy," said Junqueira, the driver who replaced 1999 Indy champion Juan Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing. "There's more pressure because I don't know what time we have to do and how much to push."
He got it just right, though, starting with a lap of 231.635 and going just a bit slower on each trip around the 2 1/2 -mile oval before completing the 10-mile run with a lap of 230.952.
That was very similar to the simulated qualifying run in Friday's practice that made the 25-year-old Junqueira one of the favorites to win the pole.
A year ago, when he was a raw rookie for Ganassi in the CART series and at Indy, Junqueira qualified 20th and finished fifth here.
"This year, there were better conditions in qualifying for me," he said. "I've got experience and I had time to practice."
Sarah Fisher became the fastest woman in Indy history when she qualified ninth with a four-lap average of 229.439 mph.
She is only the second woman, following Lyn St. James in 1994, to earn a start in the front three rows at Indianapolis. The only other woman to race at Indy is Janet Guthrie, who broke the gender barrier 25 years ago this month.
Junqueira's qualifying effort was the fastest since Arie Luyendyk set the track records of 237.498 for one lap and 236.986 for four laps in 1996, the last year the IRL cars were powered by turbocharged engines.
A year ago, Scott Sharp set the previous record for non-turbocharged cars with a four-lap average of 226.037. The slowest qualifier for the 2002 race is likely to be faster than that.
The increased speed is almost entirely attributed to the speedway's decision over the winter to smooth out the historic asphalt track by grinding it down rather than resurfacing it.
"The way they took the bumps out, it is much smoother," said defending champion Helio Castroneves, who qualified 13th at 229.053. "Everything is because of the track."
Because of a forecast calling for rain both Saturday and today, there was a great sense of urgency when qualifying began.
Other than short delays for two brief showers, though, qualifying activity was virtually continuous for the first 4 1/2 hours of the seven-hour session.
The track then remained open for practice until the final moments when Luyendyk, a two-time race winner, warmed up for what would have been his third attempt. He pulled off the track before taking the green flag and still has one attempt left in that car.
Four of the top five spots in the tentative lineup were taken by Brazilians. Surprisingly, Castroneves was not one of them.
Castroneves also became one of the pole favorites Friday with a lap over 232 mph, the fastest since practice began May 5.
He aborted a qualifying attempt after two laps over 229, then, about an hour later took a four-lap run that was considerably less than he had anticipated.
"I was surprised because it looked like our car was fast enough to win the pole based on how we've been running all week," said the Marlboro Team Penske driver. "I still think we're in good shape for the race."
American Robbie Buhl also waved off his first attempt despite an average around 229. He started his second run with a lap of 229.576, then stacked three straight laps over 231 for the second-fastest average of the cool, overcast day. He went 231.033.
"We had to go back and adjust the car a little bit to do what we did," said Buhl, who missed the Nazareth race last month because of a concussion. "You want to be fast but you don't want to be stupid. You don't always have a car capable of being on the front row here, but we knew it was possible."
Raul Boesel, who qualified for the 2001 race but was replaced in the Team Menard entry by fellow Brazilian Felipe Giaffone for race day because of a sponsor obligation, got another shot this week after PJ Jones was injured in a crash during practice.
Team owner John Menard put Boesel in Jones' seat and the veteran of 12 Indy starts, put the car on the outside of the front row at 230.612, just ahead of Giaffone's 230.326.
"From Thursday to today, we've really come a long way. For the time we had in the car, what we've achieved is unbelievable," Boesel said. "I'm not sure anyone thought it was possible."
Tony Kanaan, a regular in the CART series and an Indy rookie, had one qualifying attempt wiped out after three laps by a light mist, but went out immediately after the rain stopped and qualified at 230.253.
Referring to team owner Morris Nunn, Kanaan said, "Morris told me all along to be patient and to be consistent. Those are the two keys to being successful here at the speedway. I think we were both of those things today."
Eddie Cheever Jr., the 1998 race winner, was sixth at 229.786, followed by defending IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. at 229.585, Sharp at 229.486, Sarah Fisher, Buhl's teammate and the only woman in the field, at 229.439, and two-time Indy winner Al Unser Jr. at 229.058.
Fisher, only the third women to race here, qualified for her third Indy start after going through the first part of the IRL season without a ride.
Other qualifiers included rookie Tomas Scheckter at 229.210, Robby Gordon at 229.127, two-time CART champion and last year's Indy runner-up Gil de Ferran at 228.671, Jeff Ward at 228.556, rookie Laurent Redon at 228.106, rookie Rick Treadway at 228.039, rookie Max Papis at 227.941, Jimmy Vasser at 227.743, 1996 race winner Buddy Lazier at 227.495, 1999 Indy winner Kenny Brack at 227.240, Richie Hearn at 227.233, Michael Andretti at 226.781 and Billy Boat at 226.589.
Besides Luyendyk, other drivers who have not yet qualified include Team Kool Green teammmates Paul Tracy, who crashed in Saturday morning's practice, and Dario Franchitti; A.J. Foyt Racing teammates Greg Ray and Airton Dare, and former Formula One driver Johnny Herbert.