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Friday, May 16, 2008
Four drivers destined to go home unhappy this weekend at Indy

By John Schwarb
Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- There's not much glamour in being among the last cars on the track in the second week of preparations for the 92nd Indianapolis 500. For Buddy Lazier, Friday's practice was an exercise in stress.

"You've got one day and so much work to go through," the 1996 champion said. "One day, with second-weekend qualifying looming.

But if his late-to-the-party Hemelgarn Racing No. 91 ends the weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway anywhere in the top 33, even No. 33 itself, that's glamorous indeed.

Unlike in recent years, qualifying won't be a walk-through.

On The Bubble?

Here are a half-dozen drivers who could be sweating this weekend (in alphabetical order), four of whom could be packing up the transporters Sunday night:

Jaime Camara: He knows his way around the 2.5-mile oval, with a win and two thirds in the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100, but it's been a struggle this month with Conquest Racing. A crash during rookie orientation put him in the hospital overnight with back pain, and the No. 34 hasn't been fast. It might be a stretch for Conquest to land both Camara and fellow rookie Enrique Bernoldi in the show.

Mario Dominguez: He's one of the non-rookie rookies, with six years of Champ Car experience, including many oval races. But his Pacific Coast Motorsports car hasn't found a lot of speed at Indy, and a minor crash last week -- combined with the practice-eating weather -- hasn't allowed momentum to build for the Mexican.

Milka Duno: The third Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry isn't a weakling, but it's this simple: The second-year driver will never face a bigger test than this weekend's qualifying. Making her first Indy 500 last year was a snap compared with this.

Phil Giebler: The 2007 Indy rookie of the year got a last-minute ride with American Dream Motorsports and hasn't seen track time yet. "It was kind of a do-or-die situation if we were going to get out there for qualifying and get this done, so we're just glad to get the car put together," Giebler said. OK, but making your first laps on the morning of qualifications?

Buddy Lazier: The 40-year-old is reunited with Hemelgarn Racing, with whom he won the 500 in 1996, won a series title in 2000 and has run a few one-offs at Indy in recent years. He'll try to extend his streak of consecutive 500s to 14, tops among active drivers, with a car that saw the track for the first time Friday and ran 216.392 mph. "There's no shortcuts; we're just very rapidly going through the proper steps to be really good," Lazier said.

Marty Roth: Veteran John Andretti has looked solid in the Roth Racing No. 24 as a midmonth replacement for Jay Howard, so solid he has been 3 mph faster than his own boss. Roth has never qualified better than 29th in three 500s, and he could be in the mix of cars that bounce around the edge of the grid on Bump Day.

-- John Schwarb

Thirty-six cars have turned laps, and a 37th, driven by Phil Giebler, is expected on the track by Saturday morning's one-hour practice. At noon, qualifying resumes, with 22 spots up for grabs.

The top 11 were decided this past Saturday, with Scott Dixon on the pole. The second 11 were to be settled the next day, but rains postponed the proceedings and forced this Saturday (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET) into a combined second- and third-day qualifying session. Sunday's Bump Day (ABC, 1-3 p.m. ET; ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET) is available to shuffle the deck.

This year, expect shuffling both days -- weather permitting. There are finally enough cars on Gasoline Alley to make it interesting.

In 2007, 32 were slotted on Saturday and a measly three qualification attempts Sunday solidified the grid. Only Jimmy Kite, who ran a sluggish 214.528 mph effort Saturday, was bumped, and his last-ditch attempt to get back in the field Sunday night was waved off after one lap.

In 2006, there was limited drama with Thiago Medeiros making the field Sunday in a patchwork car for PDM Racing. Marty Roth crashed in his attempt to make the show and a late-appearing Ryan Briscoe, hoping to put a third Foyt car in the field, never got on the track. In 2005, a 34-car field left only Arie Luyendyk Jr. on the sideline.

This year, four drivers are expected to go home, the most since 2002, when five failed to qualify -- including Oriol Servia, who is back in the field this year with KV Racing Technology.

The twist in this month of May has been the weather, which has erased 2½ practice days the first week, second-day qualifying and one day of second-week practice. The only full days of practice teams have had were Thursday and Friday, and those not safely in the field had to keep an eye on race preparation with only one hour of practice available next week -- Carb Day -- for last-second tuning.

"We're in limbo-land, half qualifying, still, and half race trim. We're trying to do full race stuff, and then we're trying to go a little bit faster and see what the car's doing," said Darren Manning of A.J. Foyt Enterprises. "It's been a difficult week, all in all."

Manning is among the cars that are a shoo-in for the field, but where? He hopes somewhere in the 12-18 range, among the first six rows. If he isn't there after the qualifying cycle Saturday, he would face a hard choice of whether to pull his time off the board and try for something better. Cars get three attempts on each qualifying day.

"We'll put a four-lap run together in cautious mode to begin with; hopefully, it will be enough," Manning said. "I don't see us taking that much of a risk."

The risks will come further down the grid, and the action could be furious with forecasts for a chance of showers midday Saturday and Sunday. Several of the teams that have practiced toward the rear of the field didn't find what they were looking for Friday, which only adds to the anxiety.

"We're just battling Indy right now," Roth said. "It's just been one of those months for us. Hopefully, we'll have a car that can get into the show."

"We learned a lot, but we are still not where we want to be in terms of speed," added Mario Dominguez, of Pacific Coast Motorsports. "Obviously, [Saturday] is a very important day, and we will maximize our options to get it in the show."

Among those options could be exhausting all three qualifying attempts on Saturday and Sunday, along with feverishly watching and working the qualifying line with an eye on other teams and an eye on the forecast.

And come Sunday night, that still might not have been enough.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.