SPEEDWAY, IN — Story by Race Chaser Online open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Jim Haines photo — One year ago, on Pole Day 2013, hometown hero Ed Carpenter tugged the crowd to its feet and stormed to the pole against the odds and heavier funded teams at Indianapolis.
A year removed from the magical scene and an Indy 500 in which he finished 10th and led the most laps, indications from Saturday’s first day for qualifying point towards a possible repeat performance.
Taking to the track for the first time in 2014, Carpenter’s blistering four lap average speed of 230.661 mph on his second qualifying attempt of the day boosted the #20 to the top of the scoring pylon ahead of last year’s standout rookie Carlos Munoz. The run was enough to put a safe bumper between himself and the field for the remainder of the day following a brief rain shower that cooled the track and resulted in an influx of fast times.
“Every day you come out you want to be the best you can be,” Carpenter told the IndyCar PR team. “It’s always fun being quickest at Indy. You get into these two days and you can’t really think about the race or work on your race car. If you’ve got a fast car like the Fuzzy’s guys, you try to do the best you can with it.”
Saturday was the first of two days of qualifying for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” featuring a new qualifying procedure to set the field. The top 30 cars were secured into the field for 98th Indianapolis 500 and the quickest nine qualifiers were locked into the Fast Nine battle for pole position on Sunday. However, all cars will qualify again on Sunday with speeds from Saturday tossed out. Any entry that has yet to announce a car for the race will also be able to compete for positions 31-33.
Although Saturday’s result only saves the owner-driver a spot somewhere on the first three rows, Carpenter is still optimistic the car can be put on pole if the track conditions behave accordingly.
“I think we have a good chance for the pole, but the field is very tight this year. There are so many good cars and drivers out there. It will come down on who gets it right on the day for the pole. It really comes down to being perfect for four laps.”
Ed Carpenter Racing teammate JR Hildebrand also qualified for the Fast Nine, eking out a spot on the bubble in ninth with a speed of 230.027 mph, shaping up to be the most formidable effort by a one-off entry since Dan Wheldon in 2011.
Munoz ended the day second fastest, posting a speed of 230.460 mph. Helio Castroneves piloted his retro-Rick Mears emblazoned Pennzoil Penske-Chevrolet #3 to third, while James Hinchcliffe, Will Power, Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and J.R. Hildebrand rounded out the remainder of the fastest nine qualifiers, who will vie for the pole tomorrow.
Despite an impressive pair of runs that saw him enter the top three midway through the afternoon, former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch will not start the first leg of next Sunday’s double-duty attempt from the front row. Busch left IMS via helicopter for an approximately 80 minute flight to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Sprint All-Star Race shortly after 2 pm, forfeiting any chance to defend his 229.960 mph four-lap average and remain in the Fast Nine. His speed was good enough for 10th on the day.
“I’ve qualified a Pro Stock car on the quarter-mile. I’ve done the longest track on the NASCAR circuit (Talladega), but to do four laps here…just the shear excitement of trusting a car with downforce going down into Turn 1 at 230 is indescribable,” Busch said. “Qualifying at Indy you have to do it over 10 miles and you have to do it in the most unnerving conditions with the car—the car is not ready to go 230, but you have to handle it.”
Following the non-points event for the Sprint Cup Series Saturday night, Busch will return to Indianapolis for Sunday’s round of qualifying.
For traditional IMS powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing, Saturday’s session was a disappointing one that echoed a similar lack of speed reminiscent of 2013. All four cars in the Ganassi stable failed to make the Fast Nine cut, with Scott Dixon’s 15th place speed of 229.283 mph serving as the high point of the day. Tony Kanaan was 23rd on the day, while non-Target Ganassi drivers Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball finished 17th and 19th respectively.
In an effort to place extra emphasis on the qualifying weekend in the absence of traditional “Bump Day” drama, IndyCar awarded points for each of the 33 positions on the grid based on their Saturday times. Ed Carpenter was awarded 33 points for 1st, while Buddy Lazier’s 33rd place 226.543 mph attempt earned 1 point.
Sunday’s qualifying will be streamed live on WatchESPN beginning at 11 am, with ABC picking up coverage at 1 pm. The Fast Nine Shootout will get underway beginning at 2 pm.