As this is being written, practice is well underway for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, and what are shaping up to be the most competitive qualifying days I can remember since my first two “500s” back in 1994-95.
Right now, 40 different drivers have taken to the track – and one or two more may yet join the fray – meaning that at least seven will go home bitterly disappointed on Sunday night.
Who those seven will be is anyone’s guess. We’ve had 1 ½ solid days of practice as of Tuesday and for the most part it’s “the usual suspects” at the top of the time sheets: Ganassi (Dixon, Rahal, Franchitti); Panther (Hildebrand), a team that’s always strong at Indy; and Penske (Briscoe, Castroneves, Power).
You’ve also had a couple of mild surprises posting some fast lap speeds in the first few days of practice: Alex Tagliani, fastest of all so far with a 225.8 for Sam Schmidt Motorsports; Vitor Meira with Foyt; Ed Carpenter (Sarah Fisher) and Oriol Servia with resurgent-in-2011 Newman Haas Racing. All are solidly in the top 10, and should have at least an outside chance of mixing it up with the Ganassi/Penske “big dogs” on Pole Day.
At least a couple of the names mentioned in my previous paragraph should blast their way into the top-nine shootout on Saturday. But the smart money for the pole qualifier should still stay with Power, Franchitti and their teammates. With up to three qualifying runs per driver, it’s going to be almost impossible to knock off someone with the resources – and determination – of a Castroneves or Dixon for the pole.
Last year, it was Castroneves taking the honors with a four-lap run of 227.970 mph in decent weather conditions. Given good weather and the fact that both the Honda engines and Dallara chassis are about as well-developed as humanly possible, I expect it will take something in the neighborhood of a 228 mph to once again prevail.
In all, the top-24 starting positions will be settled on Saturday. And then the real fun for us (spectators and non-driving participants) begins … and the real sweating starts for the final half-dozen or so drivers just trying to make the field.
In 2010, the slowest qualifier was then-rookie Sebastian Saavedra at 223.634 mph, and four drivers (including Paul Tracy!) missed the field in a frantic final hour of Bump Day qualifying. I expect this year to be even more drama-filled; and for it to take a similar – or higher – speed just to make the field.
Certainly, if I’m a driver and NOT able to run consistent 223s and the odd 224 by Friday, I’d be VERY worried……
All in all, and weather permitting – a constant consideration in the Circle City during the Merry Olde Month of May – it should be an exciting Pole Day on Saturday and an absolutely riveting Bump Day. I’m looking forward to it.