Pole qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 will take place this weekend, and for the first time since the split in open-wheel racing, there is an air of excitement surrounding the race.

The merger of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car is bringing more quality teams to the fabled yard of bricks than has been seen in many years.

During rookie orientation on Sunday and Monday, it was Will Power leading the way, with speeds approaching 221 miles per hour.

But Power’s speed paled in comparison to the speeds posted on Tuesday by the Andretti-Green Racing, the first day of practice for Indy veterans.

Tony Kanaan quickly had his AGR car running at more than 224 miles per hour and was closely followed by teammate Danica Patrick at 223 miles per hour. Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh were all high up on the early speed charts.

Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe was running in the top five.

Two-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves had not taken a spin early on Tuesday.

Of course, there are still three full days of practice before the teams and drivers get down to serious business on Saturday, with two goals in their sights. The first is to claim the pole position, and the second is to be among the 11 drivers locked in to the Indy 500.

A strong run this weekend that all but assures a driver and team a starting spot in the race is a big advantage because they then have almost two weeks of practice to work on the race set-up and no longer have to worry about making the show.

Based on past experience at the Brickyard and the opening races of the 2008 season there are probably six drivers with a legitimate shot at capturing the pole position.

AGR teammates Kanaan and Andretti, Team Penske drivers Brisco and Castroneves and Target/Ganassi drivers Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon.

Kanaan has always been fast at Indy. Although he only has one pole here (2005), he has qualified in the top five positions in each of the past five years.

I will make Kanaan the favorite to grab the pole, followed by Castroneves, who has twice started from the inside of the front row and is probably due for a third victory at Indy.

Wheldon and Dixon will challenge for the pole, but will settle for one of the spots on the front row. Andretti is past due for a strong race, but I don’t think it will be during qualifying. Briscoe needs more experience at the track.

Patrick will qualify among the top six. Power, Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson should be among the drivers making the transition from Champ Cars to Indy to qualify in the top 11. Drivers who will struggle to make the field of 33 include Milka Duno and Marty Roth; probably neither one should be competing at this level of racing but they bring money to the table.

In other racing news:

Kyle Busch has earned a reputation in any of the three NASCAR divisions that he is competing with and the Las Vegas driver has talent to spare, but at Richmond he was in the middle of a storm of controversy not once but twice.

Busch has been known throughout his career to use the front bumper of whatever car he was driving to move a competitor out of the way.

During the Nationwide Series race on Friday, Steven Wallace used the front bumper to get Busch loose while battling for position on the final lap. Busch did wiggle and drift high, but Wallace couldn’t complete the pass. On pit lane, Busch went to Wallace’s car to voice his displeasure and instead Wallace grabbed his helmet.

Then on Saturday in the Sprint Cup race, Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were battling for the lead on old tires on the final lap. Busch went to the low side and, while entering the corner, drifted or drove up into Little E. The result was Little E spun, hit the wall and finished 15th. Busch finished second.

On replay after replay, it appeared that Busch turned up into Earnhardt, causing the contact.

If Busch believes turnabout is fair play. It will be another interesting weekend for the arrogant youngster at Darlington.

Will he play nice with Wallace in the Nationwide race? Will Earnhardt decide it’s time for a payback? Only time will tell.

Ken de la Bastide can be reached at (765) 454-8580 or via e-mail at ken.delabastide@kokomotribune.com.

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