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Photo/Brady Whitesel - BroncosPitstop.com
Photo/Brady Whitesel - BroncosPitstop.com
May 23rd 2014 -
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA:   Almost non-existent in practices leading up to qualifying for the 98th Indianapolis 500 Tony Kanaan, the defending Indy 500 champion was fastest when it counted today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

     Kanaan, who switched from KV Racing Technology to Target Chip Ganassi Racing this year, along with the rest of the Ganassi contingent seemed to struggle when it came to qualifying but when it came to race preparation the team with four Indianapolis 500 victories rose to forefront and now have to be considered as threats for this year’s win along with about 10 other cars.

     Kanaan’s fast lap of the one hour session was a blistering 227.838 and he was closely followed by his fellow Target team mate Scott Dixon at 227.773 as Chevrolet powered cars encompassed the top four at the end of the session conducted under ideal weather conditions.

     "I’m starting with no pressure” said Kanaan, who last year ended his 12 year winless skein at Indy in exciting fashion, "which is kind of the way I like it.  It’s not an excuse, we had a poor qualifying session, but now I like our chances.”

     "My biggest motivation is that I’m driving a car that has won this race a few times.  Three of my closest friends have driven this car:  Alex Zanardi, Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti.  Chip Ganassi gave me this opportunity late in my career.  That’s all the motivation I really need.”

     Kanaan continued, "I think the field this year is even tougher than last year when nine drivers had a chance this year I think that is double.”

     Dixon echoed some of Kanaan’s words.  "Unfortunately our bad day was last Sunday. Generally we have found the speed we were lacking.  The race cars have been good.  From the outset we concentrated on race set ups and then the switch to qualifying we had to back up on a lot of the progress we had made and were caught without the speed.  I feel comfortable in the car and the team looks good.”

     Townsend Bell was third fasted day at 227.221 and Helio Castroneves was fourth at 226.187 as he continues his pursuit to become a four time winner of the Indy 500.

     "This is the biggest race of the season for us,” said Castroneves, who drives for the powerful Team Penske-the winner of 15 Indy 500 races.  "The cars are pretty much set up, now we have to think about what we can do to win the race.  Where we need to be at the end and how we can win the race.”

     "The wins are only a number and we have been fortunate enough to win three and be part of history here at Indianapolis, but Sunday is a new day and we have to what is necessary to be in position at the end.”

      Castroneves’s Penske team mates Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power completed the session in the top 11.

      500 pole winner, Ed Carpenter was 13th at 224.898.  "We have a car capable of winning the race (500) and that’s about all you can ask for,” said Carpenter, who was an early race leader last year but feel off the pace later in the race.  "I’m a little bit more relaxed than last year.  Each year here you experience different things, conditions vary and the cars change.  We have built of strategy base on those experiences and we are much better prepared this year than last.”

     Rookie Mikail Aleshin was fifth fastest for the 500, which will be the first oval race for this talented Russian driver and he led the Honda brigade in the final practice.

     Andretti Autosport had Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti in the top ten at the end of the session.

     All eyes have been on another Andretti driver this May, Kurt Busch, as he attempts to become only the fourth driver to race in both the Indy 500 and the Coco-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina on the same day, this Sunday.

     Busch, who practice in an Andretti car last May, caught the bug and arranged this year’s ironman effort that actually commenced in February with increased training to develop the stamina to do the "double”.

     The first hurdle was to qualify for the 500 and he did so yeomanly last Saturday and Sunday qualifying for the 500 ultimately in the 12th starting position after being as high as 10th on Saturday.

     His learning curve at the Speedway suffered a setback on Monday when he crashed hard in race trim practice.  "I was just starting to feel comfortable,” said Busch, "that’s when I made the mistake of letting my guard down or settling into that long run mentality whereas with an Indy card you have to be on the edge. 

 You have to keep track of where you are all the time and the adjustments on the car.  Maybe I just didn’t keep up with keeping the car underneath me and I got behind and lost it.”

     The damage to the car was severe enough that it could not be repaired this week so he will move to Marco Andretti’s back up car.

     Busch returned this morning after qualifying for the 600 last night in Charlotte and was able to bring the car up to a fast lap of 224.684 putting in 53 laps in what was his third car out of the Andretti stable.

     "Just had to get back on my horse,” said Busch.  "Honestly, this is a thank-the-crew moment from Andretti Autosports.  Those guys worked tirelessly on Marco’s car that car that he was going to run next weekend at Detroit to put it in oval condition, to go out there, make laps, stage ourselves to progress through the session today.”

     "The big thing I’ve got to learn once I take the green flag this Sunday,” continued Busch, "is to keep up with the imbalance of the car in dirty air. We’ve been trying to simulate that as much as possible but the real test comes in the race.”

     Unlike his predecessors in doing the "double”:  John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon Busch comes into the 500 never having competed in an Indy Car event so the pressure is on.

     "Physically I am ready,” said Busch.  "Everything is done.  It’s getting closer.  To experience the actual pre-race and race will be special.”

     Busch has assembled a team to help him, trainers, doctors and pilots but perhaps the most impressive addition to his team is Father Dale Grubba, a Catholic priest from Princeton, Wisconsin who has a long history with drivers from his home state and NASCAR.

     Alan Kulwicki, the 1992 NASCAR champion from West Allis, Wisconsin was so close to Grubba that the priest said the funeral Mass when the talented driver lost life in an airplane crash.  From that association Grubba carries the Saint Christopher medal that was welded onto the bottom of Kulwicki’s seat in his NASCAR race cars.

     Grubba has loaned that medal to Busch so that he can carry the blessings associated with that Saint on his long trek this coming Sunday.  In addition Grubba will travel with Busch to and from Charlotte and say Mass for him on race morning.

    Busch has been nothing but a humble participant in this effort and everyone is wishing him well.

      All 33 cars took to the track this morning with only one mishap when rookie Sage Karam got loose in turn four brushing the wall with the right rear of the car.  He continued on to the pits and the damage will be repaired for Sunday.

     Last year’s 500 saw a record number of lead changes and the field is that much closer this year, I think this year’s edition will be a "doozey” and I hope one and all can catch it, either here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway live or on Television.