Speeds up, anxiety high at Indy
INDIANAPOLIS -- With the 33-car field set for the Indianapolis 500, the pros and cons of the revised buildup to the race have been the focus of discussion.
What happened out on the track?
Well, the starting grid looks an awful lot like last year's, with Ed Carpenter again on pole position, the Andretti Autosport and Team Penske cars right up near the front, and the Ganassi Racing cars farther back in the field than you'd expect.
With only 33 entries, there was no bumping drama, other than the race to qualify for the Fast Nine pole shootout.
The pole speed edged up by 2.3 mph to 231.067 mph, the biggest number seen since 2003 and in line with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's plan to gradually work toward setting a track record in excess of 237 mph in qualifying for the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.
The 3.1 mph spread between the fastest and slowest qualifying speeds is one of the smallest in history, suggesting that Sunday's 200-lap race will be a close-fought affair.
Here's how the top contenders fared in qualifying:
• Ed Carpenter Racing -- Owner/driver Carpenter's decision to split driving duties in 2014 with Mike Conway is looking smarter all the time. Road course specialist Conway won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, while oval-meister Carpenter came strong out of the box in his first appearance of the season to nab pole position for the biggest race of the year.
"You know, no one has raced an oval since I raced Fontana last year," Carpenter said. "I don't feel like I'm missing much. We tested as much as anyone, outside of doing the tire test here at the end of last year. I didn't feel lacking or unprepared. I prepare the same now as I did when I was racing full time. So much of it here, I think, is mental and in the preparation, and we were prepared."
Carpenter led 37 laps from his 2013 Indy pole but ultimately finished 10th. The two-time IndyCar Series race winner believes that experience will help him achieve a better result this year.
"Winning the pole last year, I think we have a better idea for me and [wife] Heather and the whole team how to be prepared for it, how to manage the week, how to manage our time," he said. "I feel good about where our cars are in race trim, so hopefully we can close out the month better than what we did last year."
• Andretti Autosport -- It's been a challenging month of May for Michael Andretti's group. The trouble started when James Hinchcliffe missed the first five days of Indy 500 practice after suffering a concussion in a freak accident in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Hinchcliffe was hit in the helmet by debris (a front wing endplate from Justin Wilson's car) and was briefly knocked out but managed to bring his car to a safe stop.
Despite running only 18 minutes of practice prior to qualifying, Hinchcliffe landed in the middle of the front row. He was one of several drivers thankful that IMS added an extra day of post-qualifying practice under the new format, because he had yet to run his car in race trim.
Qualifying went smoothly enough for the AA equipe, with Marco Andretti sixth, Carlos Munoz seventh and Kurt Busch an impressive 12th. Ryan Hunter-Reay's car mysteriously lost speed Saturday, and he will start 19th.
But Busch added to the mechanics' workload when he crashed heavily in the extra Monday practice. He will switch to a backup car but will retain his fourth-row starting spot.
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• Team Penske -- The masters of Indianapolis didn't put it all together for the new qualifying format. Will Power admitted he would have tried harder to go faster Saturday had he known about the extra championship points on offer. He and Helio Castroneves qualified third and fourth, respectively, with four-time Indy pole winner Castroneves just never managing to find that little bit extra for the front row.
Meanwhile, the team's fastest driver will start 10th due to the new qualifying rules. Juan Pablo Montoya failed to make it into the Fast Nine on Saturday, but he came close to actually going faster than the pole winner Sunday, running 231.007 mph to Carpenter's 231.067. Team Penske president Tim Cindric has insisted all season that the 500 is where Montoya will start to shine in his return to Indy cars, and many observers rate the Colombian as a favorite on Sunday.
• Ganassi Racing -- After a third consecutive year of qualifying struggles, Chip Ganassi is hoping that 2014 ends up a lot more like 2012 than 2013.
Running Chevrolet engines this year, the Ganassi cars were again nowhere in qualifying -- on Saturday. On Sunday, a setup rethink allowed Scott Dixon to run the third-fastest speed of the day, albeit one that put him only 11th on the grid. Tony Kanaan also found a couple mph Sunday and lines up 16th, but Charlie Kimball is 26th and Ryan Briscoe 30th.
The Ganassi cars looked good in the final practice session, with Dixon and Kanaan in the top five and Kimball ninth.
• The rest -- Honda is in much better shape at Indianapolis this year. In 2013, Chevrolet took the first 10 places on the grid and 12 of the top 13. This year, Honda landed three cars on the first two rows and powered seven of the top 13 qualifiers.
Grand Prix of Indianapolis winner Simon Pagenaud qualified fifth and is expected to contend strongly in his third Indianapolis 500, and local team Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing placed Josef Newgarden in the Fast Nine. Newgarden was also fastest in the Monday post-qualifying practice session.