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The Speedway Is Open

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 15 2010

It's opening day 2010 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Two weeks ago, the word “spark” got wide usage in the IZOD IndyCar Series paddocks at Kansas Speedway. And the usage was not directed at what was coming off the skid plates on the bottom of the cars.

Drivers, team owners and officials all were using the word to describe what they were sensing about their series. They all felt there was a spark glowing inside the Indy Racing League this year.

And more than one said that this month’s events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway had the potential to turn the spark into a flame.

They will begin finding out over the next two weeks whether it is a flame building or just heartburn as today is opening day at The Speedway.

May at Indy this year will have a new feel to it. The month has been compacted down to just two weeks.

There will be just six days of practice, weather permitting, preceding Pole Day qualifications, which are next Saturday. The first 24 positions on the 33-car grid will be set May 22 and the remaining spots will be filled in  24 hours later on Bump Day.

The IRL is calling this year’s qualifying process “a race within the race”.

The highlight will be a 90-minute “shootout” in which the nine fastest cars make a late-day run for the pole next Saturday.

It will all work like this:

The top 24 spots in the 33-car field will be available through traditional four-lap attempts from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (ET) on Pole Day. Each car will have up to three attempts during that time.

The times of the top nine drivers from the first segment of qualifying will be erased at 4 p.m., with all of those competitors guaranteed to start no worse than ninth. “The Fast Nine” then will be required to make at least one four-lap qualifying attempt between 4:30-6 p.m., with one additional, optional attempt if time permits. Each driver’s best run during the 90-minute session will set their position within the top nine spots on the starting grid.

Bump Day will be held on Sunday. The final nine cars will qualify and the bumping could be interesting as over 40 cars have entered this year’s race.

Reaction to the new format by drivers has been mostly positive.

“Well, you know,” Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport said, “the new Indy format is a qualifying format that is only going to make it hairier. I mean, qualifying at Indy, I don’t care where you’ve qualified or how much pressure has been on you, there’s nothing like qualifying for the Indy 500.

“If you’re in a position where you can be safe with a fast car then it’s not overly complicated. But if you need to lower that wing down to minus six, minus seven or whatever and you’re hanging it out – which we’re gonna be for the top nine – awarding points and prize money for the starting spots, it’s definitely – there’s a highlight on that.

“It’s important for your championship run, so you have to going out and give it everything you have. It’s gonna be good TV. I can guarantee you that.”

The pole winner will receive 15 series championship points as a bonus and every car that make the field will also be awarded points.

The race itself should have plenty of good story lines. Like:

– Helio Castroneves will be going for his fourth 500 victory. Should he get it, he will join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. as the only drivers to get four. He won last year’s race.

– Five women are entered into this year’s field. They are Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Simona De Silvestro, Ana Beatriz and Milka Duno.

– Former team owner Barry Green returns to the IMS. He will be working with driver Paul Tracy on the KV Racing Technologies team. The last time they were together at Indy, they think they had victory stolen from them by officials. Castroneves was awarded the victory when a race-ending caution was called.

– John Andretti will drive a car fielded by his cousin Michael’s team. NASCAR legend Richard Petty will be listed as co-owner of the car, which will feature a Petty blue livery and wear the number 43.

– American driver Graham Rahal will be driving a car for the Rahal Letterman Racing team of his father, Bobby Rahal, and TV personality David Letterman.

– Target Chip Ganassi Racing will have two former winners in the field – Dario Frachitti and Scott Dixon.

“I’ve had a bit of trouble sleeping the past few nights just thinking about getting on the track,” said Ryan Briscoe, who has started on the front row the past two years. “I’m excited about it. The Team Penske cars are running strong and I’m just really excited about our opportunities this year.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 15 2010
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