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Anxious moments await drivers
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

It's down to one final day. Twenty-four cars have qualified for the 86th running of the Indianapolis 500. Nine spots remain open.

Indy is shuttered Monday and Tuesday, but that doesn't mean that there isn't activity. With Bubble Day slated for Sunday, teams on the outside of the field are regrouping. Teams already qualified separate into two categories -- the safe and the not so safe.

Bruno Junqueira can't help but smile after winning the Indianapolis 500 pole.
For Bruno Junqueira, Robbie Buhl, Raul Boesel, Sam Hornish Jr., Scott Sharp, Al Unser Jr. and Sarah Fisher, the next couple of days are for relaxation as their teams put their cars into race trim. Starting Wednesday, they will start "full tank" runs -- extended sessions on the track to see what their car does in race trim through a 35-gallon tank of methanol.

For guys like Michael Andretti and Billy Boat, this week is filled with uncertainty. They are provisionally qualified for the 500, but their speeds are the two slowest in the field. If more than nine cars post faster qualifying runs on Sunday, they will be O-U-T. They can re-qualify in a new car, but then they join the non-qualified pool and start the maddening process of "bumping" their way back into the race.

The 500 is the only race in America that limits the field to the fastest 33 cars. There are no provisionals or promoters' exemptions. You have to earn your starting spot. In 1995, both Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser - despite winning four Indy 500s between them -- sat out the race after failing to qualify.

The list of non-qualified drivers is a heady one. Two-time champ Arie Luyendyk has never failed to make the 500 during the first weekend of qualifications until this year. His Treadway Hubbard G-force is down to its last opportunity.

"You have to take what this track gives you." Luyendyk told me. "Little things went wrong for us on Pole Day and rain wiped out our day 2 chance.

"We will take this week and go about our business as if we are already qualified for the race, then, late Friday and through Saturday switch to setting the car up for qualifying."

A.J. Foyt has had a car on the front row four of the last five years. Neither of his drivers -- Airton Dare and Greg Ray -- are in the field.

"(Friday) we had a wonderful car and I was very confident that we could run 229s and even 230s," explained Ray, who won the pole in 2000. "We never got a handle on the car today. So we're checking it over to see if something is broken because it was unresponsive to changes."

An overnight inspection of Ray's Harrah's entry found the culprit: a failed front shock absorber, and with Dare's car there was a problem with the engine.

It's going to be very marginal. It's disappointing. We just haven't been able to be as comfortable as some of the other guys. I think we're just missing something somewhere for the outright speed.
Michael Andretti on his current qualifying time

Dario Franchitti and the 7-Eleven Team Green entry is another that first had the speed to qualify then lost it. According to Team Green, the first Scot since Jimmy Clark to tackle Indy experienced an engine problem just before he was set to make a qualification attempt.

Fellow 7-Eleven driver, Paul Tracy, never got a chance to qualify. His car was destroyed in Pole Day's morning practice session. The team will attempt to repair Tracy's car by Wednesday, and put Paul in the field on Sunday.

The third member of Team Green is Michael Andretti. The driver who has led more laps than any non-Indy winner is uncertain of staying in the field with his qualification speed.

"It's going to be very marginal. It's disappointing," said an exasperated Andretti. "We just haven't been able to be as comfortable as some of the other guys. I think we're just missing something somewhere for the outright speed."

Blair Racing's Alex Barron showed the speed needed to put his Rayovac car into the field. Unfortunately, like Tracy, he also met Indy's new SAFER barriers.

"We have worked hard since January getting ready for this race," Barron said Saturday after his Friday crash. "We were running our fastest laps late yesterday in Happy Hour."

The list of drivers searching for a spot in this race gets expanded over the course of the next couple of days. Accomplished guys like Memo Gidley and Steve Knapp are ride-less so far, but are stalking car owners with primary cars solidly in the field. John Menard and Ron Hemelgarn have a history of late-minute additions to their stable.

Last year, Chip Ganassi tapped Bruno Junqueira and Niclas Minniassian -- his two CART drivers who found themselves replaced for last year's Indy by Tony Stewart and Jimmy Vasser -- on "Bump Day" for a last minute go. Junqueria came home fifth in the race and returns this year on the pole.

This week will be interesting. Act II of this three-act show has a pretty impressive finale. Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.

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Indianapolis 500 - Schedule of Events

History of the Speedway


video
 Indy 500's top qualifiers make a quick pit stop in front of the microphone.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

audio
 Sarah Fisher comments following her qualifying run on Saturday.
RealAudio: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6