Sorenson youngest guy ever to get pole position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The password for today’s 14th Brickyard 400 is “track position.”

That phrase is the one that will be uttered most by drivers and crew chiefs when talking about strategy for the 160-lap race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As obvious as it seems, track position is what can either put a driver in place to win a race or to lose it, but at Indianapolis, the most difficult oval for passing on the circuit, how close a driver is to the leader from the middle stages of the race forward is critical.

It’s not quite so important at the start of the race, though Reed Sorenson, the surprise pole-sitter who didn’t think his speed of 184.207 mph would hold up Saturday, isn’t about to trade his position for anything.

“This is a great way to start the weekend,” said Sorenson, a 21-year-old Georgia native who circled the 2.5-mile track a hair faster than Ganassi Racing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya to become the youngest pole-winner in the history of the track - supplanting Rex Mays, who was 22 years, 2 months and 20 days old when he led the field to the start of the 1935 Indianapolis 500. (Lewis Hamilton, who sat on the pole for this year’s U.S. Grand Prix, was 22 years, 5 months and 10 days old.)

In doing so, Sorenson starts on the point for the second-most-prestigious race on the Nextel Cup circuit, behind only the Daytona 500.

The 1-2 start by Ganassi’s drivers - with teammate David Stremme starting 12th - helped give Dodge four of the first six places on the grid. But Sorenson and Montoya were the class of the field.

“This is an awesome place to win your first pole,” Sorenson said.

“You can have great work in the garage, but you still need drivers to push the button,” Ganassi said. “The two on the front row pushed the button.”

Whether their advantage at the start holds up across 160 laps remains to be seen. Three times, including two years ago, when Tony Stewart did so, a driver has come from 22nd or farther back and won at Indy. But where one stands as the race restarts after caution periods in the late going is what makes the difference.

That brings pit strategy into play. On a late stop, should a car be fitted with only two new tires - always on the right side - or four tires? A two-tire stop takes less time, especially if the car doesn’t need to be completely refueled, and that can move someone well ahead of those in the group taking four tires.

At Indianapolis, that’s the fastest way to move up, but it can come at a cost. Because worn tires grip less efficiently, the track eventually becomes harder to drive, and since the Speedway is such a narrow track for a stock car to negotiate at high speed, the risk-reward on taking two or four tires is a difficult decision to make.

“You can get boxed up in traffic fairly easy, and it takes some time to work your way by somebody,” said Kevin Harvick, who won the 2003 race - the only winner to do so from the pole - and starts 20th today.

Even more daring a gamble is to take no tires upon pitting, or, if there’s no need for fuel, to not stop at all during a late-race stop by others. That can get a backmarker into the lead, but not for long.

Last year, for instance, Kyle Busch was among a quartet of leaders who stayed on the track when a caution was called with 17 laps remaining. After the green flag waved, Busch held the lead, with fellow stay-out strategist Dale Earnhardt Jr. close behind. Four laps later, Earnhardt passed Busch for the lead in Turn 2, but Jimmie Johnson, who had stopped for four tires, raced past Earnhardt in Turn 4, having made up eight places after pitting.

Johnson, who started fifth, won. Earnhardt and Busch finished sixth and seventh, respectively, after starting 31st and 37th.

Had not the tires of Earnhardt and Busch begun to fade, Johnson would have had to take a huge gamble and try to outbreak going into Turn 1 or Turn 3, which could have put all hands into the wall.

“You don’t have an option, a lane to go outside of someone, so you’re really stuck and have to be considerably faster to get through,” said Johnson, who starts 19th.

“It’s just a hard track to get the car to handle right,” said Earnhardt, who starts fourth. “The corners are different. You go into Turn 1, the way the wind blows and how the grandstands are built ... it’s just a wicked little deal you’re in there.”

The better the track position the later in the race, the less wicked things might be.

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