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Author: Mark W. Theisen
Photo/Brady Whitesel
Photo/Brady Whitesel
May 17th 2014 -
     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA:   It was the intent of the management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to put more excitement into qualifications for the Indianapolis 500, after day one, it worked!

     A continuous flow of cars, one weather delay, favorable weather conditions to produce speed and the added value of championship points in qualifying all contributed to a very stressful day for drivers, engineers and crews and in the end produced the desired drama for the fans as day one of qualifications ended with Ed Carpenter, the 2013 Indy 500 pole winner, on the provisional pole heading into the Fast nine Shootout tomorrow afternoon.

     For 2014 qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 were spread over two days.  Today’s action saw a record amount of presentations, 71, as teams searched for the right competition to make it into the Fast Nine and the rest of the teams looked for the best overall speed to get them in the race while having to re-qualify tomorrow to determine their starting position in the 500.

     It was evident as today wound down how important it was to be in the top nine, not only for the chance to win the pole tomorrow but to gain the most championship points as possible today with the fastest, Carpenter getting 33 and Buddy Lazier the 33rd and final qualifier getting just one.

     After rain severely curtailed practice yesterday the teams were ready at 8:00 A.M. this morning and the two hours of practice in cool optimal speed conditions produced the fastest speeds of the month.  Coupled with the increase boost for qualifying and the weather Marco Andretti turned a lap of 232.239 followed by Tony Kanaan at 231.598; Ryan Hunter-Reay at 231.031; Kurt Busch at 230.983 and Townsend Bell at 230.830.

      With the track filled with cars these speeds were attained most through the result of a "tow” meaning the car got faster with cars in and around them.  Realistically it was thought 230 would be the magic number and when the day was over the Fast Nine drivers all averaged 230 miles-per-hour over their four lap run.

     Qualifying procedures for today featured two lines.  In line 1 you followed the order and that worked until about 4:30 P.M., you could have as many attempts as you want but had to wait your turn.

     Line 2 was the express lane, you could get in that line and by-pass the wait but you had to forfeit your previous time and have to re-qualify.  With only 33 cars this year it was not thought this to be a big deal but when championship points were added and drivers competing for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar title were far down the speed chart and facing losing points to their championship rivals, well then the second line opened up as a viable opportunity to move up the chart and earn more points and this contributed to the drama emerging in the final 90 minutes of the qualifying session.

     Carlos Munoz opened qualifying today at 11:06 A.M. in an Andretti Autosport Honda powered Dallara and his 229.590 set the tone and the bar for the opening attempts.

     It seemed that speeds in the 229 bracket would be what was needed to get into the Fast Nine as JR.Hildebrand and Juan Pablo Montoya also posted early 229 mile-an-hour averages.

     Carpenter, making his first start of 2014 thus his first qualifying attempt, after opting to race on only oval tracks this year turning road and street driving of his car over to Mike Conway, then broke the 230 mile-per-hour barrier with a four lap average of 230.114 and that stood up until Will Power, in his second attempt in his Team Penske Chevrolet Dallara went from 229.649 to 230.323 at 2:33 P.M.

     By this juncture drivers and teams were making their second attempts at moving up the speed chart but for some it was the other way around when their second run was slower than the first due to the fact that track temperatures had increased since 11:00 A.M, in effect slowing the cars down and necessitating set-up changes.  Team Penske with their knowledge were ahead of the rest at this point of the day.

     The game changed at 3:08 P.M. when rain began to fall on portions of the track and the race course was put under the yellow caution flag for just over an hour.

     The clouds and cooler temperatures after the track was dried set off a dramatic game of chess as teams had to decide what to do to get the optimum speed out of the car and get their driver into the Fast Nine.

      James Hinchcliffe was first out after the rain and went from a first run average of 229.672 to being the fastest at 230.407.

     At 4:30 P.M. Munoz moved from 14th on the speed chart to fastest with a run averaging 230.460 and it was clear that even Carpenter was in jeopardy of falling from the top 9 as he moved his car into the line.

     Helio Castroneves in his third run of the day improved from 10th to second with a 230.432 four lap average.

     Carpenter was next and reclaimed the top spot with a 230.661 average that would withstand all challenges the final one hour and five minutes of qualifying.

     It was a tough day for Target Chip Ganassi Racing as attempt after attempt by his four drivers, including wiping out established times to move into lane two did not result in any of the four making the Fast Nine and thereby losing championship points to their rivals all over the chart.

     Marco Andretti, fastest in the morning practice, withdrew his 12th ranked speed of earlier in the day at 4:54 P.M. to move to the front of the second line went out and sustained a punctured right rear tire forcing him to end the run before completion.  After the tire was changed he was able to return to the second line at 5:15 P.M. the decision to forfeit his established run was rewarded with a 230.135 average.

    In the final half hour Montoya would try twice to get into the Fast Nine but was unable to do so in his return to Indianapolis after winning the 2000 race.

     With time running out Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing withdrew the 13th fastest time of their driver Josef Newgarden and but the burden on his shoulders of putting this small time into the Fast Nine and the talented Tennessee driver did not let them down averaging 230.033 to gain the 8 spot in the shootout.

     Hunter-Reay made one last gamble in his Andretti Autosport entry withdrawing his 10th ranked speed at 5:45 but came up short of the top nine at the end with a 229.899 being slower than the withdrawn 230.011 but either speed was not fast enough to make the shootout.

     Kurt Busch, the former NASCAR champion, attempting to be the fist driver in 10 years to qualify and race both the Indianapolis 500 and Coco-Cola 600 in the same day had a great effort to make the Fast Nine come up just one spot short.

     After qualifying earlier in the day at 229.526 he came back at 2:03 P.M. to improve to 229.960 that kept in the Fast Nine until Montoya’s third run knocked him from the top nine.  By this time of the day Busch was in an airplane heading to Charlotte, North Carolina to qualifying and race in tonight’s NASCAR All-Star.  He must return to Indy tomorrow morning as he has one more attempt let to determine his starting spot in the 500.

     The cat and mouse game was never more evident when one looked at the faces of the drivers either before or after their attempts.  For the Ganassi drivers it was frustration for Newgarden it was relief after he bore the brunt of the stress with just minutes left.

      In the end the Fast Nine were all above 230 mile-per-hour with Carpenter, Munoz, Castroneves, Hinchcliffe, Power, Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden and Hildebrand making the 2:00 shootout tomorrow and the fastest at the end of that session with start on the pole for 98th 500.

     For positions 10-33 those drivers will re-qualify with Buddy Lazier, being the slowest qualifier today at 226.543 going out first all the way up to Busch who was 10th.  This will commence at 10:30 tomorrow with the shootout going off at 2:00 P.M. in the same manner with Hildebrand being first.

     In either category the driver will only get one attempt to establish were they will start the 500.

     Carpenter earned his 33 points today and could gain 9 more tomorrow but in the overall Verizon IndyCar series points standings he will not be a factor considering his arrangement with Conway, yet the points will also count in the owners category for which a win by a small team such as Carpenter’s over a giant such as Ganassi or Penske would he herculean.

     "This means bragging rights unto 2:00 tomorrow,” said Carpenter.  "We were able to deal with the elements today because we had time,  tomorrow we have to hit it right the one and only attempt we get so it will doubly important to make the right decision then.”

     "The weather was not as much as a factor today as it could be,” said Castroneves a multiple winner of the Indy 500 pole position.  "Tomorrow, we know will be different and present a different set of challenges, we have to be ready.”

     It would seem an established team such as Penske would have an advantage over Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Hartman but with the quality of people on each team I think size of team does not matter as much in qualifying.  It is set up and I think all the teams are capable of doing the job necessary to win the pole despite the time of day or weather conditions.

     The breakdown for the shootout:  Honda powers five of the cars, Chevrolet 4 with Andretti Autosport having three cars; Penske, two; Carpenter has his two while Fisher Hartman and Schmidt Peterson have one each.

     Peterson’s driver, Pagenaud,  hopes to continue to build on his Grand Prix of Indianapolis last Saturday and by being in the Fast Nine has the opportunity to win the second step of month long goal at Indy, that of the pole, next the race for this talented Frenchman.

     Missing from the shootout are cars from Ganassi, four; KVR Racing Technologies 4,
Dale Coyne, 3 and A.J. Foyt, 2.

     Carpenter’s 230.661 down to Lazier’s 226.543 is just under three miles-per-hour and shows just how close the competition in Verizon IndyCar continues to be and despite missing the Shootout these teams still have a shot at the 500 win.

     It continues to be an exiting month in Indy.