07/07/2012 10:53 EDT | Updated 09/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Defending champion Dario Franchitti earns pole at Honda Indy Toronto

TORONTO - Dario Franchitti was trying to be polite.

The defending champion at the Honda Indy Toronto wanted to give credit to the top qualifiers for giving themselves a shot at winning the race. But Franchitti couldn't ignore the man in the room who has challenged and beaten him at Exhibition Place more than anyone else in the past three years.

"There's a bunch of guys each week that you have to compete with and most of them are up here (in the top six). Unfortunately that group is getting bigger and bigger and it's getting tougher," said Franchitti, before turning to rival Will Power.

"But we've definitely been fighting tooth and nail for what is it, three years now?"

"Yeah. It's good fun," replied Power.

Franchitti won the pole in qualifying Saturday with a time of 59.3510 seconds to earn a chance of winning in Toronto for a fourth time. To do it, he'll need to overcome the car next to him on the starting grid after Power rallied from a difficult day to qualify second in 59.3757.

Power, the 2007 and 2010 champion, held the pole last year but was spun out and stalled by Franchitti during the race. Franchitti escaped the incident without penalty, which incensed Power, who was later knocked out of the race entirely by Canada's Alex Tagliani.

This year, Power was relieved to finish second after struggling to post strong times through each round and being nudged out of pole position by Franchitti in the dying seconds of qualifying.

"We're happy to start on the front row," he said. "Obviously we all know what this race is about. Plenty of crashing and bashing, so if we can survive that we'll be in good shape."

Power lost his temper early Saturday when he locked tires with Simon Pagenaud in practice before being blocked by Takuma Sato in qualifying.

"I gave (Pagenaud) the Australian go away when he came to apologize," said Power. "But it's all good. I'm not a racing queen, I don't know what happened there. He blocked me on the back straight and kind of ran into me, but it's all good from my end. I'm not out to get him or anything. I just want a good clean race and do the best with what I've got."

Justin Wilson earned the third spot, followed by Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon on the 11-turn, 2.824-kilometre street course ahead of Sunday's 85-lap race. The top four hold seven titles in Toronto, with Wilson having won in 2005 and Bourdais topping the podium in 2004.

Tagliani finished sixth in 59.5616 seconds, but the Lachenaie, Que., native will start 16th after being penalized 10 starting spots for changing an engine Friday. He said the result still gives him a chance to win the race for the first time.

"I think you know you always try to do the best thing you can in qualifying," he said. "First of all the pit selection is important in every race so you have to get everything you can out of the car. I mean the 10-grid penalty, people had it in the past.

"But this race is a race of survival and you can still make it to the front with different strategy, tires, so I don't think we can count ourselves out of the race just because we have that penalty."

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has won two races in a row, qualified seventh, followed by Helio Castroneves in eighth. Local favourite James Hinchcliffe finished ninth, but the Oakville, Ont., native will also start 10 spots back in 19th after incurring the same engine penalty as Tagliani on Friday.

"It's tough out there, this is IndyCar, it's a lot of good drivers and it's only a tenth-of-a-second that sort of makes a difference," said Hinchcliffe. "Our big thing is we were using up our tires quicker than other guys. I think the second lap was always my quickest and I didn't have a chance to improve on that so it's too bad. We have to take the penalty so we'll start 19th and see what we can do from there."

Pagenaud, meanwhile, qualified tenth.

Franchitti counted himself fortunate to win his third straight pole during an eventful, if often unlucky season. Despite winning his third Indianapolis 500 title in May, mechanical troubles have left the defending series champion eighth in the points race, 70 behind Power for the overall IZOD IndyCar lead.

His poles at the Milwaukee IndyFest and the Iowa Corn Indy 250 ended in disaster when he failed to finish either race, with engine troubles keeping him out of Iowa's race entirely.

"All we can do is show up with a fast car and play the hand we're dealt in a race," said Franchitti. "It's all we can do. ... You just got to roll with the punches and get on with it. But at least the Target cars are fast."

Notes: Franchitti needs one more win to pass Bourdais and Toronto's Paul Tracy for seventh on the all-time wins list. Franchitti heads into Sunday's race with 31 career victories. ... The day started under the threat of rain after a morning downpour made for a wet track prior to the final practice, but qualifying ran under the sun in mild temperatures. ... Tagliani's best result at Toronto was second place in 2001. Hinchcliffe finished 14th last year in his rookie season.