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Photo by Brady Whitesel,
Photo by Brady Whitesel,
May 22nd 2010 - By:  Mark W. Theisen

     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 22, 2010:     Changing the qualifying format for 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 heightened the interest in the change but at the end of the day it was defending pole and race winner, Helio Castroneves, dominating the day in his Penske Racing Dallara, not only being fast, but being fast whenever he wanted to be to capture his fourth pole position for the race next Sunday.
     IZOD Indy Car Series officials changed the qualifying format to a two day event versus the traditional four days, having 24 cars qualify the first day and 9 the second  and then adding a bonus for the fans, a one and half hour shootout for the fastest nine cars of the twenty-four that had qualified on Saturday.  Those nine cars would then decide the pole among then with their earlier times wiped out.
     That change, plus practice speeds among nearly all of the competitors being extremely close in the practice leading up to qualifying brought out the best pole day qualifying crowd in recent memory and they were not let down by the competitors.
     Weather played a role all week long leading up to pole day qualifying but on this day.  Starting overcast and cool and then seeing the temperatures rising all day along kept engineers, crew chiefs and mechanics on their toes to make the changes necessary to keep their cars fast.  Wind, a big factor on many a pole qualifying day, was not as big an issue today so with a level playing field it was game.
     A.J.Foyt IV was the first car to qualifying at 11:00 driving one of his grandfather’s cars.  As is the rule at Indy and Indy only, qualifying consists of four laps with the average of the four being your qualifying speed.  Foyt’s four lap average of 223.992 opened the day but in the end he would not be one of the fast twenty-four of the day.
     Paul Tracy, who many still believe won the 2002 Indy 500 being ahead when a caution light came out but who lost an official decision to Castroneves, was the next car out but lost the gear box on his car before he could take the green flag. And had to head back to the garage to try and repair the car.
     Ana Beatriz, one of five women drivers entered in this years race, was out next and averaged 223.781 to be in the race at the time but would have also see that speed eclipsed later in the day.
     Will Power, one of the three Penske drivers, averaged 225.994 as the third car out and set the tone for the speed that would be needed to make the top 9.  Dark horse, Alex Tagliani was next and he brought the crowd to their feet with a 226.392 average upstaging the established multi car teams with a new team and crew for this year’s race and was able to rule the roost right through the first series of qualifiers.
     The qualifying positions are determined by a blind draw the night before pole day.  All the cars entered are allowed to draw for qualifying spot, primary cars and back up cars as well.  The entire draw must be worked though before a car can re-qualify.  Cars that have drawn a starting spot do not have to take their attempt and can pass on it.  Cars that typically do that are back-up cars that are slower than the primary or cars that have been slower in practice than what the anticipated top speed of the day will be.
     Marco Andretti was next in the first of five cars entered by his father, Michael’s, racing team.  He averaged 224.575, well off his best practice speeds but within the window of acceptance for the day.
     Castroneves was next out and came within a whisker of knocking Tagliani off the top spot of the day.  His four lap average of 226.388 was just 1/100th slower than Tagliani’s.
     Scott Dixon, 225.795; Graham Rahal, 226.617; Townsend Bell, 224.363; Davey Hamilton, 224.852; Jay Howard, 223.964; Mike Conway, 224.583; Ryan Hunter-Reay, 223.731; Mario Romancini, 223.341; Hideki Mutoh, 225.423; Milka Duno, 222.408; Dario Franchitti, 226.1565; Dan Wheldon, 224.464; Ed Carpenter, 225.166; Justin Wilson, 225.050; Danica Patrick, 224.217; Raphael Matos, 225.028; and Sebastian Saavedra, 222.452 were the next cars out and all qualified as the pace of the day continued on a quick pace.
     Mario Moraes’s spin in the second turn on the final lap of his attempt wiped out what was a promising attempt and sent his crew scurrying to make repairs to the car before the end of the qualifying session.
     Simona de Silvestro was next out and averaged 224.228 to become the fourth women driver to post a qualifying speed today.
     Penske’s third driver, Ryan Briscoe was next out and averaged 225.365 to bump Duno from the 24 previous qualified cars of the day.
     Andretti Motorsports suffered a major setback when the team’s lead driver, Tony Kanaan crashed in the first turn on the first lap of his attempt.  What was the team’s best shot at making the “pole shootout” was not sidelined for the day.
     Kanaan’s car was the last car of the original draw and thus opened up the rest of the day to any car that presented itself for an attempt.
     Bertrand Baguette bumped Saavedra with a speed of 224.189; Vitor Meria bumped Romancini with a speed of 224.033; and Tracy bumped Hunter-Reay with a speed of 223.856.
    Castroneves than made his next statement of the day by withdrawing his number two qualified car with the sole intent of taking the top spot away from Tagliani and the number one pit stall assignment on race day which was the only prize associated with the number one qualifying  position prior to the shootout.
     Castroneves first lap was 227.319, the best of day thus far, and his 226.774 average took the honor of the top speed from Tagliani.
     Hunter-Reay came back to bump Beatriz with a speed of 224.547; E.J.Viso came back to bump Tracy with a speed of 224.830.
     Tracy was back in the top 24 when Bell withdrew his original speed to try and make and crack the top 9 for the shootout.  He came up just short of the final spot in the shootout with an average of 225.097 to again knock Tracy out. Power than tried the same as Castroneves but withdrawing his speed and putting Tracy back in again.
     Power also fell short of the pole but remained in the top 9 with Tracy again on the out.   Beatriz came back to average 224.243 to bump Foyt.  Thomas Scheckter bumped out Howard with a lap of 224.261 and in an amazing team effort Moraes came back to average 224.888 to bump Meira from the 24 as his team corrected all the damage sustained in the accident and brought that same car back to the line and their driver put it in the race.
     That effort concluded the first day of qualifying setting the state for the shootout.
     Castroneves, Mutoh, Dixon, Tagliani, Power, Franchitti, Rahal, Briscoe, and Carpenter were the fastest nine at the conclusion of the five hour session and that order was after the draw to see where they would start the shootout from and not the order of the fastest after qualifying.
     The fastest could select their spot first and so on down the line with Castroneves’s team electing to send their driver out first based on how he had handled all the days’ challenges.
     And immediately the “air was let out of the sail” of the rest of the drivers as Castroneves first lap was 227.961 followed by a 228.213, 228.187 and 227.521 with a 227.790 average that would hold up through 20 other challenges by the other eight drivers.
     Rules for the shootout stated that the worst a driver could start the race were ninth, saying he crashed in the shout or had mechanical failure.  He earned a top nine starting spot earlier and would not loose that by participating in the shootout.  Rules also stated that you could attempt as may qualifying runs as possible in the shootout.  The fastest speed would continue, if you went slower the next time, you would not loose that effort.
    So with that the attempts at Castroneves continued but in the end it was Power, Franchitti, Briscoe, Tagliani, Dixon, Rahal, Carpenter and Mutoh in that order and that is how the first three rows of next Sunday’s race will look.
     Franchitti and Power each gave it three tries and put up consistent numbers but could not get close to Castroneves.
     The pole was Castroneves’ first pole of 2010, his record 29th IZOD Indy Car Series pole and his 35th career Indy car pole overall.  It is the fourth time he has won the Indy 500 pole in his 10 attempts at making the race and is the 16th time his team, Penske Racing, has won the 500 pole.
     For his “clean sweep” of the day, Castroneves picked up $175,000 in prize money and15 IZOD series championship points for winning the shootout along with the number pit stall on race day.
     “What else can I say,” said a jubilant Castroneves.  “I give all the credit to the team.  I just drive the car.  They make the decisions and I go by them.  They know this place and what it takes to do well and win, who am I to argue?”
     Penske racing, with Castroneves on the pole and Power alongside with Briscoe starting fourth will also be seeking an unprecedented 16th Indy 500 win next Sunday and after today’s team performance it is a question of if any other team has something for them.
     Franchitti, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, split up the Penske team with his third place start and said they have their work cut out for next week but have to be considered a favorite considering the teams two wins here in the last 10 years.
     It was a terrible day for Andretti Motorsports, qualifying Patrick, Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti but losing their main driver Kanaan to an accident and failing to get the fifth car, John Andretti up to speed.
     For the upstart FAZZT team, led by Tagliani, is a David vs. Goliath day coming up short in their pole quest but putting their name out as a team to be reckoned with in the future.  Tagliani will start 5th.
     Rahal’s effort was also remarkable in that he is driving for a team owned by his father but was inactive this season until putting a deal together for the 500 just weeks ago.  “We consider this a extremely great effort,” said Rahal.  “We feel were right with many of the top teams despite being out of racing this year.  The shootout was a bonus.  We took only one shot and that was it.  We got the call, (from his father) who said why risk the car for any more, so we watched the rest unfold and will get ready for race day.”
     Nine spots for the race remain to be filled tomorrow, bump day.  Once the nine spots are filled the slowest speed and car in the race to that point will be eliminated and will continue until 6:00P.M. Weather should be warmer and the track more slippery so it will be interested.
     From the crowd that was on hand and their reaction to the shootout, it was a success.  Speed has always attracted the fan to qualifying at Indy and it was surely evident today when a threshold was eclipsed giving way to loud roars from the crowd.  The drivers had different opinions but are open to anything that will bring out the people and all agreed that by seeing the people here today it is something they will have to deal with in the future and for those nine that participated today, well they have a head start.