Indy drivers gear up for wild qualifying weekend
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — IndyCar drivers can't afford to make a mistake Saturday.
Otherwise, they might not get a second shot at the coveted Indianapolis 500 pole.
With more than three dozen driver-car combinations lining up for two days of qualifications and rain in the forecast both days, drivers will have to take their best shot on their first, and perhaps, only attempt at the top qualifying spot.
"You might only get one run," said Scott Dixon, who won the 500 from the pole in 2008. "So you're really going to have to focus on preparing yourself well, making sure that your first run is a good one. With 40 cars trying to qualify, it's going to be a complete mess."
That would certainly fit with this month's theme.
Rain completely washed out practice Sunday and Wednesday, kept all but one car off the track Tuesday and cut last Saturday's practice short by 2½ hours. The limited track time — and the potential for more rain to eliminate any additional practice between qualifying attempts this weekend — has teams revising their schedules and recalculating to see how they can safely make the field Saturday.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric, for instance, used most of Friday's six-hour practice session to work on race setup for the team's three drivers. When they finally switched to qualifying setup late in the day, three-time winner and four-time pole-sitter Helio Castroneves vaulted to the top of the speed chart with a fast lap of 228.611 mph. No surprise there.
Castroneves, the former "Dancing With The Stars" champ acknowledged he did get a tow on that lap.
But in Indy's unique qualifying format, one good lap simply isn't enough.
Cars are positioned on the 33-car starting grid based on four-lap averages. The nine fastest cars Saturday can then participate in a 90-minute shootout at the end of the day. None of those nine will start lower the No. 9 spot — the outside of Row 3 — for the May 29 race.
The remaining nine starting spots will be filled Sunday. Once 33 cars are in the field, non-qualified cars can begin bumping their way in.
Add more rain to the mix, and it could make for the wildest, wackiest qualifying weekends seen in Indy in years.
"All my experience here, I never had this type of a scenario with so many cars going around the track," said three-time winner and four-time pole sitter Helio Castroneves.
Who's in position to take the pole at this centennial celebration?
Of course, Castroneves is one of the favorites. He's qualified in the top 10 each of his last eight years and among the top five in six straight years.
Some of the other usual suspects are there, too.
New Zealand's Dixon was third fastest Friday at 228.181 — one of six drivers over 228.
Castroneves' teammates — Ryan Briscoe and Will Power — also should compete for the pole. Power, of Australia, has won all four poles this season, leads the point standings and turned the fastest lap Thursday at 227.778. Briscoe, another Aussie, was fourth-fastest Friday at 228.029.
But there are plenty of potential surprises lurking.
Three lesser-known drivers — Canada's Alex Tagliani and Americans Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell — have consistently run among the leaders all week. At one point Friday, those three had the three best laps.
Tagliani, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, finished just behind Castroneves at 228.327. Bell, his teammate, slid to eighth 227.927. Carpenter, driving for Sarah Fisher Racing, was sixth at 228.017, while Belgium's Bertrand Baguette was fifth at 228.028.
Defending champion Dario Franchitti, Dixon's teammate with Target Chip Ganassi, takes the 11th fastest car into the weekend after clocking a 227.432. And Michael Andretti's team has struggled most of this week. Of his five drivers, his son, Marco, was only 15th at 226.851. Danica Patrick was 20th at 226.267.
What does all this mean?
"I think it's going to be very difficult to do a 228.3 average lap, but it will have to be up there on a one-lap go," Tagliani said. "We feel like we're strong, but it looks like on a no-tow chart, there's a lot of cars that are quite strong. So it's very difficult to have a pretty good read."
The other big factor could be the draw. Taglinai will be the fourth car on the track. Baguette will be the No. 7 car out. Bell drew the 46th spot and Castroneves at 53. Dixon has the 57 spot, and Carpenter drew No. 73.
Those going out in the first hour could have a big advantage with a slightly cooler track. Temperatures are forecast to hit 80 degrees on Saturday.
That means drivers will be fine-tuning during the morning practice and will likely continue making changes during the one-hour break between the end of practice and the start of qualifying at 11 a.m.
HVM Racing is still trying to figure out whether Switzerland's Simona De Silvestro will be able to drive after burning both of her hands in a crash Thursday. She has not yet been cleared to drive, though the team has not hired a replacement driver.
All of it has created complexity to an already nerve-racking weekend.
"I think with 41 or 42 cars, it takes about 6 minutes per car, so if we start at 11 o'clock sharp, it could be 3 o'clock without a break," said Roger Penske, who has won 16 poles and 15 races at Indy as an owner, both records. "You're not going to have a chance to go back out. The top 24 will end up being selected tomorrow, and you want to be sure you're in the field."
Or have a chance at making history on the race's centennial anniversary.
"This place is fantastic, it's awesome, it's tough," said Castroneves, who is trying for an unprecedented third straight pole. "I'm going to focus on what I need to make it work so that we can put the Shell V-Power in the No. 1 spot."