By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Hideki Mutoh went from driving in the Indy Racing League's developmental series to being the fastest rookie qualifier for the Indianapolis 500 in less than a year.
Mutoh, a Japanese driver who signed with Andretti Green Racing before this season, didn't expect the chance to drive for one of open-wheel racing's best teams.
"First time I heard that news, I thought 'that's not me, that's another guy,"' he said. "I was very surprised they chose me to drive this year."
Mutoh replaced Dario Franchitti, last year's IndyCar points champion and Indy 500 winner, on the Andretti Green roster. Now, he has qualified ninth for Sunday's Indy 500, and will start in the third row.
"I'm hoping for a top-five finish," Mutoh said. "That would be great. Of course, I want more than that, but top five would be good. I'm pretty confident."
The 25-year-old joined his three teammates as winners of the fastest rookie award -- Tony Kanaan won in 2002, Danica Patrick in 2005 and Marco Andretti in 2006. Even team owner Michael Andretti won it in 1984. Mutoh said he didn't know that until Tuesday, the day of the luncheon that honored the rookie qualifiers. When he found out, he became even more impressed with the talent that surrounds him.
"I'm really proud of this team," he said. "They've really helped me out a lot. I have Marco, Tony, Danica. They have so much experience on me."
Mutoh is part of an unusual rookie class. With the merger between the IRL and Champ Car earlier this year, many of the rookies have extensive experience. Other rookie qualifiers were Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson, Alex Lloyd, Will Power, Oriol Servia, E.J. Viso, Mario Moraes, Enrique Bernoldi and Jaime Camara.
Mutoh, with a four-lap average speed of 223.887 mph, was the only rookie to get in on the first day of qualifications.
His success in May isn't a surprise, based on his early results this season. He placed sixth at St. Petersburg, 11th at Twin Ring Motegi and sixth at Kansas.
Mutoh began competing in karts in 1994. He joined British Formula Ford in 2000 and placed seventh out of 105 drivers in the Formula Ford Festival in England.
He moved up to Formula Ford European, then Formula Dream in Japan before joining Japanese Formula 3.
He was rookie of the year in Japanese Super GT Championship before moving to the U.S. Last year, he finished second in the Firestone Indy Lights standings.
He made his IndyCar series debut last season at the Chicagoland Speedway while driving for Super Aguri Panther Racing, and finished eighth.
None of that compares to Sunday's challenge. Mutoh is getting used to the daunting 2 1/2-mile oval where the weather can play tricks on a driver -- especially a young one.
"It's a really difficult track," he said. "The track is so big, and with the wind direction always changing, it's really difficult to judge what your car needs."
The biggest challenge is the long straightaways and the absence of drive-off space. He learned about that last year when he drove in the Freedom 100.
"Speed is so fast, and you're driving in the wall. It makes me more nervous before I drive. It's really tough to adjust the car."