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Andretti, Hunter-Reay Sneak In At Indy

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 17 2009
 
John Andretti is welcomed into the field at Indy. (Photo courtesy of Dana Garrett) 

John Andretti is welcomed into the field at Indy. (Photo courtesy of Dana Garrett)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Bump Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an either/or situation. It either brings out the best in a driver, or brings a driver to his/her knees.

“I’ve always looked at these guys on the bubble on Bump Day and absolutely felt for them,” John Andretti said Sunday afternoon at IMS, after qualifying for the 93rd edition of the Indianapolis 500 via a last-gasp attempt. “I was with Marty Roth last year (when he qualified 33rd) and the jubilation was unbelievable. I can’t imagine how embarrassed I would have been to call (car-owner) Richard Petty and have him ask, ‘Where do you start?’ And I don’t (start). It’s been a very, very tough day.” 

Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay drove their way into next Sunday’s race in dramatic fashion, as the 33-car field for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was finalized. Taking advantage of improved conditions over Third-Day qualifying on Saturday, several drivers withdrew their times to avoid the dreaded “bubble.” Tomas Scheckter, Mike Conway, E.J. Viso, Nelson Philippe and Milka Duno all pulled the gamble off successfully and managed to move to safer starting positions, while Bruno Junqueira had little trouble making the cut on his first run of the month.

Andretti – who began the day in the field and wound up 28th – got bumped midway through the day by Junqueira, the 2002 pole-sitter who was making his first qualifying attempt with Conquest Racing. Andretti, the 46-year-old native of Indianapolis, then struggled to find speed on two subsequent qualifying attempts. With just 15 minutes of the six-hour session remaining, Andretti, Stanton Barrett and 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier were all outside the field, and Hunter-Reay had been pushed back onto the bubble.

Andretti was first to try to take Hunter-Reay’s grid spot, but his four-lap average was too slow to bump the Vision Racing car from the field. Barrett and Lazier then made last-ditch efforts to qualify, before both waved off their runs after poor first laps. Their quick decisions to abandon their attempts allowed Andretti to go back out again with eight minutes remaining. On his third and final attempt, Andretti earned a spot in his 10th Indianapolis 500, posting a four-lap/10-mile average speed of 221.316 to bump Hunter-Reay. Andretti’s four laps were at 221.571 mph, 221.393, 221.201 and 221.098.

“I’m exhausted,” said Andretti, driver of the No. 43 Window World Dallara/Honda. “I don’t want to do this anymore, to be honest. Just coming down pit road, you would have thought that I won the race. I couldn’t hear the crowd, but I could see them standing and waving.”

Andretti praised his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing crew, and rookie teammate Conway, with finding a combination that clicked around the 2.5-mile oval.

“We tried something different in practice today,” said Andretti, who finished 16th at IMS last year in a car entered by Roth Racing. “We got advice, and it was one of those things that we couldn’t get to work. We went back (to the garage) and took Mike Conway’s shocks and springs and put them on my car. It made the car really nice to drive. It was a nice run. When I took the white flag and I made it through Turn 1 flat, I thought I wouldn’t get through it. Turn 1 had been killing me all day. It was the wind and I had been struggling with it all day.

“I give all the credit to my teammates. As a group we were doing a good job, but we were struggling. Now we’ve gotten better as a team. We were fighting hard, each one of us. I’m the old man, and I had to fight the hardest, and it’s not supposed to be that way.”

Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay rebounded by posting a speed of 220.597 mph to edge Alex Tagliani by a few hundredths of a second for the 33rd position. That put Tagliani alongside Barrett and Lazier as non-qualifiers.

“It was lucky we went out last,” said Hunter-Reay, who wheeled the No. 21T Vision Racing Dallara/Honda into the field with three minutes remaining. “We’re running downforce as low as you wouldn’t believe. It was so trimmed-out. I mean, it was just all day long it was like this. Since we woke up, it was: ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do? Let’s pull the car out. Let’s put it in.’ The whole day it was qualifying simulations. That was the hairiest day I’ve ever had, I think. I’ve never been so happy to be last place.”

Hunter-Reay, who finished sixth for Rahal Letterman Racing at IMS last May en route to Chase Rookie of the Year honors, won the $50,000 Firestone Indy 500 Final Qualifier Award as the last driver to qualify on Bump Day. Nine drivers combined to make 12 qualifying attempts, resulting in seven bumps. 

Scheckter earned the $10,000 Red Gold Red Zone Award for turning the fastest single qualifying lap on Bump Day. Lap 1 of his attempt at 5:36 p.m. was 221.845 mph. He will start 26th.

“I’ve been at this track the last seven years,” said Scheckter, driver of the No. 19 Mona-Vie Racing Dallara/Honda. “I haven’t eaten anything today. I just came mentally prepared today, but we thought we’d be safe and how things change. We’re in the middle here doing a race run when we had to get the car back at 4:30, and just take all the downforce out of it and bring it back. We did two runs and then stuck it in line, and we went a mile-and-a-half quicker than we qualified before, so we got to be happy with that.”

Tagliani, who was elated to crack into the field on Saturday, was a little confused by the last 20 minutes of strategy from his Conquest Racing crew. Tagliani’s No. 34T Rexall Edmonton Indy Dallara/Honda was pulled out of line at 5:41 p.m., 5:46 and 5:51. The Canadian’s car was the only one in line when the gun fired to end the session at 6.

“The car was plenty fast to protect our position,” Tagliani said. “I don’t know the whole running around get in line, get out of line. Kind of difficult to accept the fact that you need to go home with a car that is capable to be in the field. It’s hard to comprehend. I know the way I am, and this race was important for me, and it’s really difficult right now.

“The worst thing is we didn’t go out to protect ourselves. We kept putting it in line. So when you go home and you’re slow, there’s nothing you can do. But when you go home under these conditions …”

The 33-driver field is the closest-matched by time in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Just 3.0967 seconds separate the cumulative four-lap qualifying times of pole-sitter Helio Castroneves and Hunter-Reay. The previous record was 3.2422 seconds set in 2001.

“That is pretty cool,” said Brian Barnhart, Indy Racing League president of competition and racing operations. “It speaks volumes about our formula and the depth of field that we have.  I feel so bad for Tags (Alex Tagliani) and the Conquest Racing team. They work their tails off all year, and I’ll tell you, leaning in the cockpit and telling them they weren’t going to get to go because we’re out of time and they’re a lame duck and he’s either in or out and it’s not under his control was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was just a devastating look in his eyes. I know how hard he and the team had worked.

“From a field standpoint, it’s what makes Indianapolis special. It’s the 33 best drivers and teams under the conditions of what we had. Tightest field speaks volumes about how tight the competition is. We got all four days in with bumping, and the depth of field reflected on it. I know it’s pressure-packed for the drivers and teams, but the feedback from the fans is how much they like it. These guys understand that that’s the job. Whatever the format is, it’s their job to go out and drive the car as fast as the conditions allow.”

This is also the sixth-closest matched field by speed in Indianapolis 500 history, as 4.267 miles per hour separate Castroneves and Hunter-Reay. The record is 3.130 mph set in 1953.

There are four former Indianapolis 500 winners in the starting field: Castroneves (2001, 2002), Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Scott Dixon (2008). Among them they have six victories. The record for most former winners in the field is 10 in 1992.

Scott Sharp is the most experienced driver in the field with 13 previous Indianapolis 500 starts.  The record is 35 set in consecutive years from 1958-1992 by A.J. Foyt Jr. The oldest driver in the starting field is Davey Hamilton, 45. The youngest qualifier is Graham Rahal, 20.

Four rookies have qualified for the race – Englishman Conway, Robert Doornbos of the Netherlands, Brazilian Raphael Matos and Frenchman Nelson Phillipe. Last year’s field featured 11 rookies. 

                                                                           — 

Qualifying Sunday for the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar Series event on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with starting position, car number in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine and speed:

1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Honda, 224.864

2. (6) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Honda, 224.083

3. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 224.010

4. (02) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 223.954

5. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 223.867

6. (11T) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Honda, 223.612

7. (5) Mario Moraes, Dallara-Honda, 223.331

8. (26) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 223.114

9. (12) Will Power, Dallara-Honda, 223.028

10. (7) Danica Patrick, Dallara-Honda, 222.882

11. (99) Alex Lloyd, Dallara-Honda, 222.622

12. (2) Raphael Matos, Dallara-Honda, 223.429

13. (15) Paul Tracy, Dallara-Honda, 223.111

14. (14) Vitor Meira, Dallara-Honda, 223.054

15. (18) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 222.903

16. (27) Hideki Mutoh, Dallara-Honda, 222.805

17. (20) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Honda, 222.780

18. (4) Dan Wheldon, Dallara-Honda, 222.777

19. (41) A.J. Foyt IV, Dallara-Honda, 222.586

20. (16) Scott Sharp, Dallara-Honda, 222.162

21. (67) Sarah Fisher, Dallara-Honda, 222.082

22. (44) Davey Hamilton, Dallara-Honda, 221.956

23. (06T) Robert Doornbos, Dallara-Honda, 221.692

24. (8) Townsend Bell, Dallara-Honda, 221.195

25. (17) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Honda, 220.984

26. (19) Tomas Scheckter, Dallara-Honda, 221.496

27. (24) Mike Conway, Dallara-Honda, 221.417

28. (43) John Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 221.316

29. (13) E.J. Viso, Dallara-Honda, 221.164

30. (36) Bruno Junqueira, Dallara-Honda, 221.115

31. (23) Milka Duno, Dallara-Honda, 221.106

32. (00) Nelson Philippe, Dallara-Honda, 220.754

33. (21T) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Honda, 220.597

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 17 2009
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