Photo credit: Jim Haines/Indianapolis Motor Speedway
INDIANAPOLIS – Never mind the contrived formula designed to mitigate a lack of entries, Saturday’s qualifying for the 100th Indianapolis 500 was full of redemption, drama and surprise.
The drivers who advanced to today’s Fast Nine shootout that will determine the pole position for the race on May 29 represent a wide variety of storylines.
Start with Saturday’s fastest qualifier, James Hinchcliffe. The popular Canadian nearly died after a crash in practice before last year’s race. He averaged 230.946 mph on his four-lap run.
“I can’t thank (my crew) enough. What a difference a year makes,” Hinchcliffe said. “It validates all the effort the guys have put in.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay experienced a bit of redemption as well. The 2014 Indianapolis 500 champion was knocked out of the Fast Nine by Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti in the closing minutes of qualifying.
“That was a pretty hairy few laps there – I was holding my breath the whole way,” Hunter-Reay said.
He bumped his way into the Fast Nine in convincing fashion, opening with a scorching lap of 231.315 mph, and wound up with a four-lap average of 230.805 mph to oust Andretti from pole contention.
Third-fastest was Will Power, who also had a stirring run late in the day to average 230.736 mph to lead Team Penske.
“This is the hardest qualifying I’ve ever done at this place,” said last year’s runner-up, who gets to do it all again today. “It was very hairy on the last lap.”
Teammate and three-time 500 champ Helio Castroneves was fourth quick, followed by Townsend Bell, an Indy-only specialist driving for Andretti Autosport, and Josef Newgarden of Ed Carpenter Racing. Bell had the fastest single lap of the day at 231.582 mph.
The final three spots in the Fast Nine went to Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport) and Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske).
Aleshin, who did not compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series last year due to lack of sponsorship, had the last attempt of the day and nudged out rookie Alexander Rossi.
Munoz’ effort means he will start in the first three rows for the third time in four races. Pagenaud, who leads the points and has won the last three races, will go for his first pole in the 500.
The competition between the two engine manufacturers, Honda and Chevrolet, was about as even as possible: Five Hondas and four Chevrolets in the Fast Nine.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that none of Chip Ganassi’s four cars made it into the Fast Nine. Scott Dixon, last year’s pole-sitter, was 13th after Saturday. The best the 2008 500 champ can start is 10th after today’s qualifying.
Teammate Tony Kanaan, who won the pole in 2005 and the race in 2013, was 19th on Saturday.
Juan Pablo Montoya, last year’s race winner, also missed the Fast Nine – the only member of Team Penske to miss the cut.
Morning rains, then stubborn “weepers” pushed the start of practice until 12:37 p.m. Because of the delay, qualifications didn’t start until 2:20 p.m. and were extended until 7 p.m., one hour later than normal.
A total of 30 cars qualified Saturday for the 33-car field. Still to qualify are rookie Max Chilton, who crashed during practice; Pippa Mann, who crashed during her qualifying attempt; and Gabby Chaves, who waved off his attempt late in the day.
Neither Chilton nor Mann were hurt and are expected to qualify today.
Today’s qualifying will set the order of the field. Positions 10-33 will be determined from 2:45-4:45 p.m. The Fast Nine Shootout, which will determine the pole position and the rest of the top nine spots, begins at 5 p.m.
Here are the results of Saturday’s qualifying: