The new Indy 500 qualifying format was a little hard to understand at first. By mid-afternoon on Pole Day today though, it was obvious that the format resulted in some high drama. The rules stated that the top 24 cars would get into the field today. In addition, the top 9 would have their times erased and take part in a shootout from 4:30-6 to determine the pole.
The first point of high drama was the final half hour before the 4:00 deadline to determine the top 24. While the top 9 looked decided, everyone else was still jockeying for position in the field and the piece of mind of not having to sweat it out tomorrow. It went down to the wire, when Mario Moraes bumped his way into the field after getting on the track with less than a minute to go. Moraes’s run left Vitor Meira as the unfortunate bubble boy.
Meira wasn’t the only big name to be left out of the field. Paul Tracy suddenly couldn’t find speed and will have to qualify tomorrow, and neither could John Andretti. Sarah Fisher’s terrible week continued, and now she’s in major danger of missing the race. Most shocking of all though was Tony Kanaan, who crashed during his qualifying attempt. He’s down to his backup car on a team that hasn’t been performing that well. Just ask Danica Patrick.
Danica qualified on the middle of row 8, behind fellow women Ana Beatriz and Simona De Silvestro. When she got out of the car, she called her car the worst she ever drove and scary. Of course, she blamed this all on the engineers, even saying on the track PA that “it’s not my fault,” which got her booed. I thought Danica turned a corner with maturity last year. I was obviously wrong. Grow up, Danica.
Of course, where there are disappointments, there are surprises, and the top surprise was Alex Tagliani. Tags has been fast all week, and backed it up by taking the 3rd position in the early going, and finishing the shootout in 5th position, putting him on the middle of the 2nd row and making him the top non-Penske and Ganassi. Also performing above expectations were one-off drivers Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal, who both made the final 9 shootout.
If the fight for the top 24 was excited, the plan was that the shootout for pole would be even better. That turned not to be the case, but it was still a thrill when Helio Castroneves laid the hammer down right at the start, putting down two laps over 228 mph and an average of 227.970 mph. That speed was considered unfathomable. It killed the drama for pole, but what a performance.
Unfortunately, there was some controversy. With less than 8 minutes to go, Helio went out again. Helio and Team Penske took advantage of the rule that you could out again during the shootout and not lose your fastest time to a.) get an extra set of tires, and b.) run out the clock a little bit. Chip Ganassi was caught on camera (correctly) calling that bullshit. They got Helio off the track in time for both Ganassis to take their last attempts. However, Helio took his sweet old time getting off the track, and was still on the backstretch after Dixon went by to start his warmup. Look, while going out was taking advantage of a loophole in the rules, going that slow while someone else is getting ready to make a run is bush league.
Despite that black mark, overall is a successful day. Drivers seem to have warmed up to the format, and the crowd liked it as well. Reports are that Pole Day attendance was higher than its been in years. It all sets up to what should be an exciting Bump Day tomorrow, and of course, the race itself next Sunday.