High anxiety surrounds Pole Day at Indy

INDIANAPOLIS -- The more things change at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the more they stay the same.

They've cut the amount of practice time and modified the qualifying format this year, but a driver from Team Penske or Target Chip Ganassi Racing is still almost guaranteed to claim pole position Saturday when qualifying commences for the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500.

The first obvious change to the condensed month of May was the appearance of veteran drivers on the track on Opening Day. So despite the condensed overall schedule, veteran drivers actually received more practice time before Pole Day than they had the last few years.

With time at a premium, the big guns didn't wait around a day or two for the track to get seasoned. Defending Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves was the first driver to complete a lap in 2010, and IMS CEO Jeff Belskus credited having the big names on track immediately for the 68 percent increase in Opening Day attendance. The fact that speeds are up incrementally probably helped, too: At 226-227 mph, pace-setting laps throughout the week of practice were about 4 mph faster than a year ago.

The lack of a second week of practice forced teams at both ends of the spectrum to rethink their game plans. For the front-runners, it meant focusing on a consistent race setup before switching to a quest for all-out qualifying speed. For those scraping to make it into the field, it meant figuring out the best times to run on a crowded race track while rationing their engine and tire mileage. A change in Firestone's tire allocation procedure also led to a different plan of attack by many teams.

Of course, the typically erratic Indianapolis springtime weather didn't help matters, with all seven of the practice days leading up to qualifying affected by rain to some extent.

"Usually you're able to put aside tires for the qualifying runs and then work on your race setup," said Izod IndyCar Series championship leader Will Power. "The rain delays helped us on tires. You've got plenty of time to run and not enough tires, so rain delays are OK as long as it doesn't rain every day."

Not everyone was happy with the move to a single week of practice. "I prefer having a week to work on qualifying and a week to work on the race setup -- that's what Indy is all about," said Ed Carpenter of Vision Racing. "[IndyCar Series competition president] Brian Barnhart always says there are two races at Indy -- one for the pole and one for the race. It just feels weird this year."

Others embraced the change. "It's good," Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti said. "For me, in particular, I was always the one that pushed the race setup. We've really got to accelerate our program a bit because it's condensed. I always just want to work on the race car and then just stick it in line for qualifying line and see what happens."

With the final practice day, Friday, almost guaranteed to be a washout, most teams hadn't even gotten around to testing a qualifying setup and are banking on their years of experience at Indianapolis with the 8-year-old Dallara chassis to help them get it right on Pole Day. They'll have plenty of opportunity: With the new qualifying format, a driver could conceivably make as many as six qualifying runs Saturday.

At 4 p.m., the top 9 drivers will be locked in at the front of the field and will then participate in a 90-minute shootout for the pole.

For the first time, championship points will be offered for Indianapolis grid position, and the cash prize for winning the pole has been upped to $175,000.

The pole shootout has proved unpopular with Indy traditionalists, but should do a good job putting the Pole Day focus back where it should be -- on the front of the field. All too often, midfielders or drivers struggling to make the field would slip into the qualifying line at the end of Pole Day and prevent quicker drivers from making a potentially fast run.

With the first three rows to be decided by a shootout and the last three rows up for grabs on Bump Day, there's a nice symmetry to the new format as well. But like the move to the 11-11-11 format used for the past five years, the change will take some getting used to.

"I hope they come out and prove the new formula to be right, though I like the old way better," two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk said. "You get it done in three tries, or you're out. But things are changing everywhere, and in our sport. It will be an exciting shootout for pole because you're chasing the track conditions all day long. These guys that qualify in the top 9 have their work cut out for them."

The nine fastest drivers will all be required to make another qualifying run after 4:30 p.m. Then they can throw caution to the wind and make as many runs as they'd like to try to improve their position.

"As far as I know, once you make it into the top 9, Firestone is going to keep giving you tires so you'll have an unlimited amount," Andretti said. "Once you get in, your time is going to stand and you can take a few more risks. I think those three rows are really going to be going for it. It will be interesting."

Six-time Indianapolis pole winner Rick Mears always said that Indy qualifying was much more difficult to him than the race itself. On Saturday, it will be fascinating to see just how far drivers and teams are willing to go in their quest for the top starting spot and the comparatively modest cash prize that goes with it.

And now the late-afternoon battle for pole is going to have nine contenders rather than the usual two or three.

"Only a couple guys would be stressed out at the end of the day," 2005 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan observed. "You're wondering, 'Am I going to beat him, or is he going to beat me?' Now we'll have nine guys stressed out. It's going to make our days a lot longer because you'll have to go out again at 4:30."

"Asking the driver to go and stick his neck out on the line once is hard enough because the car is free and sliding and dancing to get the speed," KV Racing veteran Paul Tracy added. "To do that multiple times and sticking your neck out, I can predict that someone is going to step over that line."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.