Race Within A Race Is On
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves looks at the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a race-within-a-race-within-a-race. And greedily, Helio wants to win them all.
“Every team that comes here wants to be the fastest and get the Triple Crown of the pole, the pit stop competition and the race,” Castroneves said at the conclusion of Fast Friday, when he posted the fastest practice lap around the 2.5-mile oval at 39.7250-seconds and 226.558 mph.
“We’ve been running well, but we’ve found that there’s a lot of other good cars out there that might surprise a lot of people,” said Castroneves, odds-on favorite to win his fourth pole under the IZOD IndyCar Series’ new qualifying format late this afternoon. “We’re going to continue working and try and squeeze a little bit more out of the car before we go into the real deal.”
A two-hour practice ending at 10 a.m. Saturday will lead into the start of qualifications at 11 a.m. The top 24 spots in the 33-car starting field will be filled through traditional four-lap/10-mile attempts until 4 p.m. Each car will be allowed up to three attempts during that period. At 4 p.m., the fastest nine cars will advance from Segment 1 to Segment 2 for a 90-minute shootout for the PEAK Performance Pole Award.
Thirty cars were within a half-second of Castroneves on Friday, with 10 different teams represented in the top 15. Will Power, Castroneves’ Team Penske teammate, was second on the speed chart at 226.429 mph. Meanwhile, Alex Tagliani of the first-year FAZZT Race Team posted the third-fastest speed at 226.153 mph. The native Canadian momentarily upstaged 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, fourth-fastest at 225.828 mph. KV Racing Technology’s Mario Moraes rounded out the top five at 225.806 mph.
“Certainly, with the conditions we had (Friday), we put all of our focus on qualifying,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Dallara/Honda. “You want to make sure you get a clean run in and try to simulate a qualifying run as closely as possible. We’re fast and we’re pushing the limit and trying to make sure that we’re comfortable (for Saturday). It will be a little different than past years because we may not have had as much practice time, but we’re happy and were right there.
“Today’s fast lap was just one time. I couldn’t get three more (down). It just shows that when you push to that area, it is very difficult. The conditions change all the time. (Satuday) will be different, and the new format is going to be very interesting.”
The 36 drivers recording hot laps on Friday were separated by 0.7745-seconds. Fifteen drivers turned laps of 225 mph or faster. For bragging rights, Castroneves posted the fastest lap of the event _ 227.046 mph _ on Sunday, May 16.
“(Friday) was another great day, the best it’s been all week,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. ”The car feels great out on track, whether I’m in the draft or out on my own. I think we’re prepared for Pole Day, and I know I’m anxious to get out there and give it a go. Helio got the fast lap again, so I know all the Team Penske cars are capable of being on top.”
Tagliani, who started 33rd and finished 11th at Indy last May while driving for Conquest Racing, continued to impress with another solid day of practice.
“I feel like I’m sounding like a broken record, but it was another perfect day,” said Tagliani, driver of the No. 77 Dallara/Honda. “It’s been a dream week so far. The B & W boys have done such a great job. (Thursday) night I was in the garage by myself waiting for an interview and looking at the car, just going around and looking at every detail. I had to write my boys a note and tell them, ‘Thank you so much for building this baby,’ because just looking at the car makes me speechless.
“I know that here, in this particular place, where every tenth of a mile per hour counts and all the little bits and pieces on the car are so important, so what we are doing here (being fast) is because of way the crew has built the car. We know we have a chance to be in the fast nine, and if we have a clear run, we should be OK. Hopefully, that is what happens in qualifying, and at the end of the day, we’ll see how far we can push the car to be on the front row and maybe even the pole.”
Enticements include a $175,000 payout to the pole-winner along with significant paydays for the other front-row starters, championship bonus points and the No. 1 position for the 94th edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on May 30.
Dixon, a two-time series champion from New Zealand, capped a week that saw him record laps in the top five on the speed chart in five of six days of on-track activity. “It seemed like we ran more laps (Friday) than we had in any previous day so far this month,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Dallara/Honda. “We’re just missing a bit on our qualifying setup. Hopefully we can get it sorted out in our qualifying meeting and be ready to go do the job we need to do.
“We worked on the car as much as possible. We were struggling with balance and fuel. I wasn’t real comfortable with the car to trim out to the degree we need to. We did a lot of laps. We didn’t go through a whole lot of tires. All in all, we got the car a little bit better but still not where we need to be. We were going to have another crack at it right at the end, but the rain started to come.”
Castroneves _ who greedily swept the aforementioned Triple Crown at IMS last year _ admitted he has every reason to be confident heading into Pole Day.
“Certainly you always want to have a little bit more time as a driver, you want to go out there and maybe you should do a little bit more and maybe do a little bit here and there,” the popular Brazilian said. “But at the end of the day, thank God, the incredible team of engineers that we have and the entire team…when the car came out of the truck, the car was pretty much well set up. We seem to go into it starting with a great situation. But, again, we are still going to continue.
“It’s going to be new, this format, new to everybody, you know? I just am going to go and drive.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com