Alex Tagliani led the two-car Sam Schmidt Motorsports team in qualifying today for Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series Indy Japan 200 in Tochigi, Japan.

By qualifying 15th in the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda/Firestone car, Tagliani will start on the inside of the eighth row in tomorrow’s 63-lap race on the 2.98-mile, 14-turn Twin Ring Motegi circuit. His time of 1:39.0409 seconds was the eighth fastest in his original group of 13 qualifiers.

“We had a pretty tough start of the day today, but the team did a good job to recover,” said Tagliani after climbing from his car. “It was fairly close to make it into the top 12. We just missed it by a tenth. It was pretty close, but honestly we still have some gains to make. Both cars have been struggling a bit with grip over all. Being a new track everyone is talking about the lack of grip on the new surface, lack of traction and grip. We understand that we need to get a bit more and if we can make the proper change for the race, run from there and try and get a good finish. Everything is possible. We did it in Baltimore so I know we can do it here as well.”

Hideki Mutoh, Tagliani’s Japanese teammate and driver of the No. 17 Autobacs Formula Dream /AFS/SSM Honda/Dallara/Firestone car, will start 22nd and in the 11th row after stopping the clocks with a lap of 1:38.9407 seconds. His time was 11th fastest in his original group of 14 qualifiers.

“Qualifying was disappointing,” Mutoh said. “For the (first) session, I was happy with the balance of the car and my driving as well. We were P5 in the first session and from there myself and the car couldn’t improve and the track has been changing also. We just couldn’t adjust the car to where we should be. The field was tight. If I had another two tenths it would have put me fifth in this group so it’s a very tough championship for sure. I still have tomorrow and it’s another day so hopefully things will turn around and we will have a strong finish.”

As a result of damage suffered during the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake in March, the Motegi oval, which has always been used by the IndyCar drivers, is not suitable for racing. The Indy Japan 300 is being run for the first time on Motegi’s 14-turn, 2.98-mile, natural-terrain road course. According to series officials, raised ridges in places on the oval track prevent it from being used.

Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon captured his second PEAK Performance Pole Award of 2011 and the 17th of his Indy car career by turning a lap 1 minute, 38.3918 seconds. Penske Racing’s Will Power will start next to Dixon on the front row after he produced a lap of 1:38.4194 seconds.

Dixon’s Ganassi Racing teammate Graham Rahal will line up on the inside of the second row with the third fastest qualifying time of 1:38.5946 seconds. Power’s Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe will line up on the outside of the second row with the fourth fastest qualifying time of 1:38.7082 seconds.

Rookie James Hinchcliffe, a former Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, rounded out the top five in qualifying with his lap of 1:38.9226 seconds. Hinchcliffe is an IndyCar rookie of the year candidate.

Current IZOD IndyCar Series point leader Dario Franchitti, from Ganassi Racing, will start ninth with his lap of 1:38.8738.

In capturing his 17th pole of his IndyCar career, Dixon ties fellow Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi for 18th spot on the all-time Indy car pole winner’s list.

The Indy Japan 300 gets underway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, September 17, with live coverage provided by Versus.

Date:               Sept. 17, 2011

Event:             Indy Japan 300 (Round 15 of 17)

Series:                         IZOD IndyCar Series

Location:                    Twin Ring Motegi (2.98-mile, 14-turn street course)

Pole Winner:   Scott Dixon of Ganassi Racing (1 minute, 38.3918 seconds)

SSM Lineup:   Alex Tagliani (15th, 1:39.0409 seconds) 

Hideki Mutoh (22nd 1:38.9407 seconds)