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Indianapolis (AFP) - Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe, who watched last year's Indianapolis 500 from a hospital bed after a near-fatal practice crash, starts on the pole for Sunday's 100th running of the American oval classic.
Hinchcliffe's third-turn crash into the outer wall last May shoved a steel rod from the car's suspension through his right thigh and into his left leg, causing massive bleeding that required safety workers to pump 14 pints of blood into him to keep him alive until he reached the hospital.
It's an accident Hinchcliffe can't remember due to a concussion. He had to ask those who rescued him from the wreckage to learn the details of what happened.
But the 29-year-old from Oakville, Ontario, says he never doubted he would return to racing and one year later, he finds himself the man to beat with the first pole of his IndyCar career.
"The accident didn't change me. I'm just as hungry, just as driven," Hinchcliffe said.
"There was never doubt in my mind or the team's mind that we would be back. To come here and do this the way that we did really puts a firm stamp on it and closes that chapter, and now we can look forward. Hopefully in a couple days we've got an even cooler story to tell."
Hinchcliffe drove his Honda-powered car to a four-lap qualifying average of 230.760 mph (371.372 k/hr) last Sunday at 2.5-mile (4km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway to claim the inside from row spot in the 33-car field for the 200-lap feature event at the famed "Brickyard."
Americans Josef Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay join Hinchcliffe on the front row for the 100th Indy race with American Townsend Bell, Colombia's Carlos Munoz and 2015 Indy 500 runner-up Will Power of Australia in row two.
France's Simon Pagenaud, the IndyCar points leader after winning the past three series races -- all on road courses, starts in the middle of row three, flanked by Russian Mikhail Aleshin to the inside and three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Brazil to the outside.
- Hinchcliffe eager, 'wiser' -
But the popular fan choice will be Hinchcliffe, whose comeback bid is like few others ever attempted in a century at Indy.
"As an entire team, to have come back from where we were a year ago, to now be sitting here, I would strongly argue anybody that would have tried to say that this pole would have meant more to them than it would us," Hinchcliffe said.
"The power of the human mind is pretty incredible. It's tough to describe, to put into words, unless you've been through something like that. I always considered myself to be a driven person, a motivated person. But given the situation where the only thing you've done with your life really is almost being taken away from you, it definitely motivates you to work harder and get back to where you want to be.
"I'm wiser now than I was a year ago and know that these opportunities and moments don't come along very often in life and you need to kind of take pause and appreciate them. I've allowed myself to do that a bit."
Defending champion Juan Pablo Montoya will start in the exact center of the field, the middle of row six, the worst qualifying position for Roger Penske's team, which also includes Power, Pagenaud and Castroneves.
Past winners Scott Dixon of New Zealand and Tony Kanaan of Brazil are also in the hunt.
- Indy's lone woman is a Mann -
The only woman in the field is Britain's Pippa Mann, who starts 25th, while American Alexander Rossi is the top-starting rookie in the middle of row four.
American Marco Andretti is among several legacy Indy 500 drivers, his grandfather Mario having won the 1969 Indy 500 and his father Michael having tried for years and now serving as a team owner.
Aussie rookie Matthew Brabham, whose grandfather Jack and father Geoff have raced at Indy, is in the lineup. So is Graham Rahal, whose father Bobby took the checkered flag at Indy 30 years ago.
American Conor Daly is the son of former Indy 500 racer Derek Daly and the stepson of Speedway president Doug Boles.
British rookie Stefan Wilson will start 30th. He's the brother of the late Justin Wilson, who died last August after being struck by debris at the IndyCar event at Pocono Raceway.