INDIANAPOLIS — Scott Dixon made a big gamble pay off Sunday.
After allowing engineer Chris Simmons to tinker with his car's qualifying trim and later questioning whether the changes might be too daring, Dixon delivered with the fastest speeds he's ever seen at Indianapolis.
The New Zealander finished with a four-lap average of 232.164 mph, claiming his third Indianapolis 500 pole with the best qualifying run in 21 years. He easily held off the other front-row starters, Ed Carpenter at 231.664 and defending champion Alexander Rossi at 231.487.
Even Dixon couldn't believe it.
"Seriously, I don't know where that came from," the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said. "It's fast, really fast. I actually thought there was something wrong with my dash to start with, (I thought) '232? Wow!' I knew that big lap, the first one, was going to be tough to beat. So a big thank you to Chris."
How impressive was Dixon's run?
Just four attempts earlier, IndyCar rookie Fernando Alonso posted the fastest average since Helio Castroneves' 2002 pole-winning speed.
Dixon's first-lap of 232.595 and his final average were the fastest times recorded at Indianapolis since Arie Luyendyk set the qualifying record and single-lap record in 1996. Luyendyk's average was 236.986 with a best lap of 237.498.
The crowd roared each time the speed went up on the videoboards and when Dixon pulled back into pit lane after his 10-mile ride, everyone knew the nine-car pole shootout was over.
"I was surprised when I saw some of the numbers yesterday and when he did that 232, a little pressure went away to be honest with you," said Carpenter, who went 232.180 on his fastest lap. "We wanted to be on the front row and we wanted to get everything we had — and I think we did that."
Dixon still had to weather the runs of Japan's Takuma Sato and Carpenter.
Neither had enough to keep Dixon from becoming the fifth three-time pole winner in 500 history. Carpenter was looking for his third in five years.
For a few minutes, it looked like two-time Formula One champ Fernando Alonso had a chance to become the first rookie to win Indy's top starting spot since 1983.
But two attempts later, Rossi knocked Alonso out of the top spot and two attempts after that, Dixon took the lead for good. Now he can focus completely on next weekend's race.
"We've got to be happy with this — it's the right place to start," Dixon said. "It's not the race win, but we're in the right starting position."
For the first time in six races, a Team Penske car does not have the pole. And it wasn't even close.
After Castroneves acknowledged Saturday that the team struggled to find speed all week, the usually powerful Penskes struggled again when speeds went up.
Will Power, who has won three poles this year, had the fastest of the five cars. He'll start from the outside of Row 3, after going 230.200.
"It was all we had," Power said after finishing ninth.
Two-time race winner Juan Pablo Montoya qualified 18th, the outside of Row 6 at 229.565. Three-time 500 winner Castroneves will start 19th, the inside of Row 7, after going 229.515. Josef Newgarden qualified 22nd at 228.501 and defending series champ and current points leader Simon Pagenaud will start 23rd after going 228.093.
Carpenter, his teammate JR Hildebrand and Power are the only Chevrolet drivers in the top nine.
Dixon's teammate Tony Kanaan will start seventh, the inside of Row 3.
Andretti Autosport has four cars in the first three rows — Rossi and Alonso, Sato at No. 4 and Marco Andretti at No. 8.
NO EASY FEAT
The fifth Andretti driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, had the fourth best run of the day at 231.442. But he'll start from the No. 10 spot, the inside of Row 4 after failing to qualify for the fast nine. But it sure wasn't easy.
"That was crazy," the 2014 Indy winner said. "It was white knuckles the whole time. It felt like that all four laps."
SETTING THE FIELD
Seven former winners and three rookies made the 33-car starting grid.
And for the second straight year, the last car on the grid will start without an official qualifying time.
Dale Coyne Racing's No. 18 car, with replacement driver James Davison, will start from the back of the field. Davison, of Australia, replaces French driver Sebastien Bourdais, who had successful surgery to repair his pelvis Saturday night.
The 38-year-old Bourdais suffered multiple fractures in his pelvis and a fractured right hip in a frightening crash during qualifying Saturday. Coyne named Davison the replacement driver before qualifying began Sunday.