Random Thoughts On Qualifying Weekend
The starting grid for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is now set. James Hinchcliffe made an emotional and thrilling run for the pole to cap off a day that saw underdog Honda take it to the heavily favored Chevy powerplant. Honda-powered cars made up five of the Fast Nine, and ultimately two of the front row of three. Besides Hinchcliffe on the pole in a Honda, Ryan Hunter-Reay placed his Honda on the outside of Row One.
Josef Newgarden was the lone Chevy sitting in the middle of the front row. The Chevy engine was good, but just not good enough. Three of the four Team Penske cars made the Fast Nine, yet Will Power, starting on the outside of Row Two, will be the highest starting Penske car on the grid. Alongside Power will be the two Hondas of Townsend Bell and Carlos Munoz. That means four of the top six cars on the grid were Hondas. The other two Chevy-powered Penske cars brought up the rear of the Fast Nine.
To say that Chevy got spanked may be a bit harsh, but I think it’s certain to say that they did not have the day they had hoped for. Now the big question remains – which aero kit will race better in traffic next Sunday. I’m still not convinced that we have heard the last from Chevrolet in this year’s "500". Let the speculation begin!
But as far as yesterday’s run for the pole, you would be hard pressed to find someone who is not happy for James Hinchcliffe overcoming his devastating injuries from last year to find himself leading the field to the green flag of the Indianapolis 500.
TV Coverage: Since Susan and I did not arrive home until close to midnight, we haven’t had a chance to watch any of ABC’s coverage. I still take issue, however, with the fact that qualifying for this event has been reduced to a two-hour TV window each day. I do commend whoever made the decision to start the Fast Nine Shootout at 5:00 instead of 3:00, that makes it more like the old traditional Happy Hour of years past. I will be curious to see if Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear put people to sleep, over-hype everything, or if they treat it with the rational excitement it deserves. Stay tuned.
Ganassi Woes: Not only is the front row devoid of a Penske or Ganassi car for the first time in a while that I can remember, but the four Ganassi cars didn’t even make it into the Fast Nine. Scott Dixon is the highest-starting Ganassi driver, starting on the inside of the fifth row. Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan will start on the inside and outside of Row Six, respectively. Max Chilton did well to qualify his backup car on the inside of Row Eight after crashing his primary car on Saturday.
With thirteenth being the highest starting position for a Ganassi car in this year’s race, this would appear to be a very un-Ganassi-like year. With that being said, don’t be surprised if a car from the Chip Ganassi stable ends up winning the race.
Andretti Comeback: Going into the Month of May, everyone (including myself) had basically left Michael Andretti’s team for dead. The Andretti Autosport cars couldn’t get out of their own way earlier this season – especially Marco Andretti. Given the Andretti troubles and the woes of Honda all season, I never expected much more than a whimper from any of the Andretti Autosport cars. How wrong I was!
Michael Andretti placed three of the top five cars on the starting grid. Rookie Alexander Rossi will start in the middle of the Fourth Row, while Marco Andretti will start in the middle of the Fifth Row. If you had told me that five Andretti cars would occupy the first fourteen spots on the grid, I would have laughed. It looks like Michael Andretti and Honda are having the last laugh. Good for them.
Mixed Bag for ECR: While it’s great that Ed Carpenter’s primary driver, Josef Newgarden, will be starting in the middle of the front row, the rest of the team did not fare so well. JR Hildebrand will start outside Row Five, while Ed Carpenter will start in the middle of the seventh row.
I’m not quite sure what has happened to Ed over the last couple of years. After starting on the pole for two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014, he started twelfth last year and will roll off in the twentieth starting spot next Sunday. It seems that Carpenter is having a hard time getting a handle on the Chevy aero kit. But Ed is a good racer and I’ll be curious to see how he fares in the race.
With Hildebrand starting mid-pack, he really needs to move up and have a strong finish. Hildebrand hasn’t had a full-time ride since John Barnes unceremoniously dumped him two days after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His window of opportunity to ever be considered for another full-time ride is starting to close. JR really needs to make the most of this opportunity if he ever wants to revive his career, and not just be considered as a one-off for the Indianapolis 500.
Foyt’s Forgettable Day: Alex Tagliani’s crash early on Sunday began what was a mostly forgettable day for AJ Foyt Enterprises. Tagliani’s spectacular-looking crash appeared to do substantial damage to his car, assuring him of starting thirty-third in a thirty-three car field. Quite honestly, I don’t think the crash made that much difference, as Tags was one of the slowest cars on Saturday. You don’t get much slower than the third Foyt car.
Jack Hawksworth didn’t do much better by completing his full run. The only car he was faster than was that sled that Buddy Lazier was driving. Two of the Foyt cars will flank Buddy Lazier in a very underwhelming last row.
The lone bright spot for Foyt was Takuma Sato, whose 228.029 mph was good for the outside of the fourth row. If Sato can keep his nose clean beyond the first turn off the first lap, he might give AJ a decent finish this year.
All in All: While yesterday gave us a good show and a thrilling result for the pole, I sill don’t care for this format. We are lucky that more cars weren’t wadded up in pointless "qualifying" runs. To make drivers make a qualifying run on Saturday, only to have their times erased on Sunday and to qualify again is absurd. While I recognize that economic times dictate that they will probably never go back to a two weekend qualifying format – surely that can come up with something more practical than this. The current format needlessly puts its cars and drivers at risk for nothing.
Having said that, I enjoyed the weekend – especially yesterday. The crowds were good and enthusiastic. You could feel the energy from the crowd when Hinchcliffe clinched the pole. No matter what format they follow, it’s hard to replicate the raw emotion derived from watching a driver make a run like that.
With a front row comprised of three very popular drivers – one Canadian and two Americans, from three different teams and representing two different engine manufacturers; this has the makings to be a very interesting Indianapolis 500. We’ve been counting down the days for a year now. It’s almost here. I, for one, can’t wait!