INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Sam Hornish Jr. came up a bit short on his prediction but not his speed.

The fastest driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for most of the month did not disappoint Saturday, driving away with the pole position for the May 28 Indianapolis 500.

After running a lap at 229.996 mph in the morning warmup – by far the fastest lap since practice began nearly two weeks ago – Hornish came back less than two hours later and proved it was no fluke with two more laps over 229 on the way to a four-lap qualifying average of 228.985. “This car is about as perfect as I’ve ever had,” Hornish said. “I was really about 99 percent happy with it.”

Hornish, who has failed to finish the big race in each of his six previous starts, said he told his Marlboro Team Penske crew on Thursday night he would qualify at 229.

“I made myself look bad to them because I didn’t quite get there,” he said, grinning.

It didn’t matter. None of the other 31 drivers who qualified Saturday could come close to knocking Hornish off the top spot for the May 28 race. His big day gave team owner Roger Penske his 13th Indy pole, matching the record number of wins for the elite team.

Hornish, a two-time IRL IndyCar Series champion, would like nothing better than to join the nine drivers who have won here for Penske and finally end his own Indy jinx that has seen him crash three times and fail to finish more than 196 of the 200 race laps.

“It’s a long race next Sunday and I want to make it through that. I want to make sure I make the full 500 miles,” he said.

“You know, it’s not the guy who’s the fastest here that wins this race; it’s the one who makes the fewest mistakes.”

Defending Indy champion Dan Wheldon, the only driver able to beat Hornish for a day’s fast lap this month, couldn’t come close to Hornish’s Saturday effort.

Wheldon posted a solid run with four consistent laps over 227, but his average of 227.338 was far short of what he’d hoped for, placing him tentatively on the outside of the front row of three.

With each car allowed up to three attempts a day, Wheldon considered withdrawing his qualifying run and giving last year’s IRL champion another shot at Hornish late in the day. But, after some afternoon practice, Wheldon decided against it. “Maybe we’d have had something for (Helio) Castroneves, but Hornish has been pretty quick all month,” Wheldon said. “We’ve just been a couple of steps behind that Penske team since we got here.”

Two-time Indy winner Castroneves was the only driver able to even approach teammate Hornish’s performance. The Brazilian started with a lap of 227.741 before ticking off three straight trips around the 2.5-mile oval above 228 for an average of 228.008.

That run placed him in the middle of the front row, but it was still nearly a full mile an hour slower than Hornish.

“I think that’s as fast as we can be and Sam’s been consistently strong for the whole month of May,” Castroneves said, shrugging.

“We’re very happy.”

Castroneves, who made a second try on pole day last year and fell from fourth to fifth in the lineup, was right when he said none of the other top drivers were likely to try requalify in an effort to move up.

“We can’t be too greedy here because this place can give you a big surprise that you don’t want to have,” he said.

Scott Dixon, Wheldon’s Target Chip Ganassi teammate, was fourth fastest at 226.921, followed by Tony Kanaan, last year’s pole-winner, at 226.776 and 2005 race runner-up Vitor Meira at 226.156.

The third row included Kosuke Matsuura at 225.503, Scott Sharp at 225.321 and 19-year-old rookie Marco Andretti, grandson of 1969 winner Mario Andretti, at 224.918.

Danica Patrick, last year’s rookie sensation and the only woman in the field, remained far off her 2005 pace but was still content after posting her four best laps of the month on the way to an average of 224.674 and the inside of the fourth row.

“Those were probably the easiest four laps I’ve run this month,” Patrick said. “That’s the way it is when your car is comfortable.”

Buddy Rice, Patrick’s Rahal Letterman Racing teammate and the 2004 Indy winner, qualified at 224.393 after missing last year’s race because of an injury from a crash during first-week practice. Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner, qualified at 220.922.

Three big-name drivers making comebacks also were among the early qualifiers.

Michael Andretti, Marco’s father, retired following the 2003 Indy 500 to concentrate on being a team owner. He decided to come back to race at Indy with his son and qualified easily at 224.508.

Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy winner and making his first Indy start since 2002, posted a 222.028 and two-time winner Al Unser Jr., who spent last year in retirement, qualified for his 18th Indy start at 219.388.

Jeff Simmons, another Rahal Letterman driver, crashed twice this month, including a wreck Friday that demolished his primary car. But he made it into the tentative field in his backup at 220.347.

With all the top teams well prepared after an extra week of practice, car after car took to the 2.5-mile oval without a break from the moment qualifying began at noon. By the time Dario Franchitti had an engine problem and became the first driver to abort a qualifying run, 2 hours and 20 minutes later, all but four spots in the 33-car starting field had been filled.

Each car is allowed up to three qualifying attempts, and Franchitti came back late in the afternoon and qualified at 223.345, good for the middle of the sixth row.

Rookie Townsend Bell was the second qualifier of the day at 223.659 but chose to give up that speed and the 16th spot in the lineup to try again during the final hour. He did improve to 224.374, but that only moved the Indy newcomer up one position.

P.J. Jones and Arie Luyendyk Jr., sons of former Indy winners, were the final two qualifiers of the day – and the slowest. Luyendyk, whose father won here twice, qualified at 216.342 and Jones, son of 1963 winner Parnelli Jones, made it in at 215.816.

That left one spot to fill on Sunday in the final day of time trials.

Once the field is full, nonqualified drivers can bump the slowest cars in the field by posting a faster four-lap average, but the only drivers who appeared ready to make attempts were Marty Roth and rookie Thiago Medeiros, who crashed on Friday and is waiting to see if his team can find a backup car.

AP-ES-05-20-06 1839EDT