Final Saturday Top Nine qualifiers

Ed Carpenter and son Cruz

ED CARPENTER/No.20 Ed Carpenter Racing was the first and last quickest driver Saturday under the new qualifying format. He was the fifth driver to make a run Saturday morning – 230.114 mph, immediately putting him on top. The crowd went wild. Talk about local boy makes good – born and raised in Indianapolis and school at nearby Butler University, which is one of his sponsors this weekend.

The Verizon IndyCar Series changed the traditional format, which gives more points; and P1 Pole Winner won’t be decided until Sunday afternoon. Carpenter’s final run at 4:45pm local time rocked at 230.661 mph. His first run held for much of the session, and then started falling, landing at fifth before he decided to run again.

Carpenter said “I’ve been in every shootout but one, and I enjoy it. But I’m glad we made another run, it will help us be better prepared for tomorrow. I sat it out for a long time, before deciding I needed to go out again. And yes, I was very nervous while waiting in the chute to go on track (the first time.”) Neither of the ECR cars went out for the morning practice.

CARLOS MUNOZ/No.34 Andretti Autosport Honda was second fastest. Last year he was a Rookie at the Indy 500 while he ran the full Indy Lights Series. In 2013 Munoz started and finished second.

HELIO CASTRONEVES/No.3 Team Penske Chevrolet was third.

Fourth through ninth were: JAMES HINCHCLIFFE/No.27 Andretti Autosport Honda, WIL POWER/No.20 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, MARCO ANDRETTI/No.25 Andretti Autosport Honda, SIMON PAGENAUD/No.77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda, JOSEF NEWGARDEN/No.67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda, and Carpenter’s teammate, J.R.HILDEBRAND.

The Top Nine were all faster than 230+ mph, and are the only ones who have a chance for Sunday’s pole.

Three of the five Andretti stable made the Top Nine. A very disappointed RYAN HUNTER-REAY had been ninth, withdrew and ran again, but not as fast, finishing P11.

Kurt Busch

Rookie KURT BUSH/No.26 Andretti Autosport was in the Top Nine, and was almost on top after three of his first four averaged laps. The crowd went wild when Lap Three went to the top. However it wasn’t long-lived. He ran twice and finished P10. He immediately took off after his second run, headed for the chopper and airport. He landed on schedule, saying “Door to door, I walked out of the paddock in Indianapolis and made it here, to the back of the hauler, in an hour and 31 minutes. We gave ourselves a two-hour cushion so if there is anything that happens, we’ll know exactly what our timeline is.”

There were no Chip Ganassi cars in the field, but three ‘small’ teams were represented, including the pole sitter who is the only owner-driver team this season.

There was plenty of drama Saturday, including a 79-minute hiatus for the usual ‘moisture’ on track mid-afternoon. The weather started out with 55F ambient temps and 78F for the track, calm winds and relative humidity of 55 percent. The first car went out at 11:06am local time, and finished as scheduled at 5:50pm, with Rookie JAMES DAVISON/No.33 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet the last car on course. It never got any warmer.

Under the new format, there was a lot of Bubble angst for the Top Nine positions, with the provisional pole position changing four times and the bubble driver changing almost with every run, or so it seemed. Part of the excitement had to do with which line the driver wanted. For those who were anxious to get out, there was paperwork to complete to withdraw the current time and get in the Fast Chute to go out first. For those drivers who wanted to try again but not risk their current time, they waited it out in the Slow Chute. Think of if like the HOV lane on the metered freeway on-ramp, with all the HOV cars leaving first, instead of taking turns.

The new format called for one qualifying run of a four-lap average speed, in order of the qualifying draw, setting the provisional field, with the top thirty locked in. All 33 must re-qualify on Sunday for the final grid,with the Top Nine running a shootout for the Pole position and 33 valuable points. All drivers earn a point in descending order of grid position.

Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. There were two lines in Pit Lane, two chutes as it were. One was for cars already in the field, and the other for cars not yet qualified. Even though everyone ran at least once, multiple attempts were allowed without withdrawing a time – unlike the rules in the past. However, if the time was withdrawn, the cars can go into the second chute, which has first crack at going out on track.

If you understand that and can repeat it back – good on yah.

For the two days of qualifying, IndyCar has raised the boost level from 130 kPa to 140 kPa. This adds about 40 hp to the engines. After qualifying, the boost level returns to 130 kPa for Coors Light Carb Day and the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 race on Memorial Day weekend.

Hinch said “I think the track will get faster.” Hinchcliffe had the least amount of track time of any driver, getting his first eight laps in the Friday 19-minute long session, and the another nine in the Saturday morning practice. Not too shabby for so little time.

In the first obligatory post-run interview, Carpenter couldn’t keep his eyes off the T&S monitor, fearful someone would knock him from his perch. By and large all the drivers were glued to the monitor during their interviews. The goal was to be at least in the Top Nine.

One driver looking very disconsolate as he strolled through the garages Saturday morning was E.J.VISO of Venezuela, who filled in for the concussed Hinchcliffe for the five days of the week in No.27 Andretti Autosport Honda. He was philosophical, saying he knew had two scenarios going into this weekend, dependent upon Hinchcliffe’s recovery. At this point he does not have a ride and hopes are fading.

I asked HPD IndyCar Project Leader, MARK CRAWFORD, would Honda consider VISO for an additional Honda entry in someone’s backup car, given his overall experience, and especially this week shaking down Hinch’s car. While Crawford respected Viso’s experience, he thought at this point it would be stretching Honda’s resources too thin. Honda already supports eighteen drivers, with each driving having his/her own Honda engineer dedicated to that car. “It’s certainly a challenge because we spread ourselves thin, and it’s when the workload is the highest. ”

Sound Bites:

Castroneves: Re smaller teams making it – “It is a credit to the engine manufacturers too. Obviously they seem to be pushing each other in a way it is keeping things very close. Also the Series, it is a spec series so the limits of what we can do and change and touch, is very…so even the big teams are finding it difficult to separate themselves. Certainly the smaller teams, you can see the field is getting so tight, if they have a good organization, they can be battling with the big teams, and I think that is the credit for the small teams.”

Newgarden: “It’s so competitive now that just the smallest thing can throw you completely out of it.”

Carpenter: Regarding the new format, “I’ve been in every shootout but one, and I enjoy it. But I’m glad we made another run today. It will help us be better prepared for tomorrow. I have no speed secrets. I’m glad I’ve got the attention of the other teams in the garage.”

Hildebrand: “I’ve never worked so closely with another driver at this level, with such close teamwork with the engineers and all.”

Carpenter: We all want to do well. I have such a good team. Our working together (Ed and JR) has been a long process, since last June and he moved to Colorado.” Regarding a second team? “We’ve wanted to expand for a long time. Funding is the factor. It’s easier to run a second car at Indy than at other races, because everything is already here. We’ll worry about that (a second team) after we work out how to win the race.”

Sunday’s forecast is sunny and mid-sixty degreesF. Break out the shades, sandals and sunscreen.

Josef Newgarden

JR Hildebrand & Ed Carpenter

Helio Castroneves