7:05 PM — I might not be a huge fan of the current qualifying format, but I can’t deny that it made for some exciting moments this afternoon. As car after car tried to lock themselves into the Top 30, some drivers excelled and some driver failed. In the end, two small teams secured spots and some major players are going to bed tonight on the outside looking in.
On the positive side of the ledger, the biggest shock of the day was the late afternoon run of Ben Hanley, who put his Dragon Speed car on the outside of Row 10 and safely into the field. If everyone is being honest, the Dragon Speed entry was on nearly everyone’s short list of drivers who were in the biggest risk of being sent home. But now they are safely in the field and will be starting 27th in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The other feel good story is that of Pippa Mann. Another who was on many people’s short list of drivers in danger, Mann bounced back from her bitter disappointment of being bumped last year to secure the final spot up for grabs today. It was an emotional Mann who climbed out of her car at 5:50 this afternoon to the applause of the crowd and hugs from her team.
Without being disrespectful to either of those teams, their ability to lock themselves into the field takes two spots that many people assumed would be up for grabs. And good for both of them for doing so. They should both be supremely proud of their efforts and hold their heads very high for the rest of the week!
On the flip side, the drivers who will be fighting for the last three spots is much different than I think anyone would have guessed a week ago. Fernando Alonso will be fighting for one of the last three positions with James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton, Pato O’Ward, Sage Karam, and Kyle Kaiser. All six of those names are stout drivers who came into this week fully expecting to be in the field, and three of them are going to go home without turning a wheel in the race.
For Hinchcliffe, this day had to be a horrible nightmare that is all too familiar. After failing to make the field in 2018, Hinch wanted absolutely nothing more than to have an uneventful day and get into the field without any drama. Now he will face the gauntlet of bump day, having only one chance to go faster than at least three other drivers and make the field.
With two of the three Carlin entries facing Bump Day and the real possibility of missing the Indianapolis 500, this will undoubtedly give Roger Penske more ammunition in his argument for guaranteed starting spots for the 500. But I think it gives as much ammunition to those, like myself, who argue against such travesty. This race needs to be an open invitational that allows every entry an equal chance to qualify for a starting position. Securing any spots and reducing the number of available positions for all entries – full season IndyCar teams or one-offs – should never happen.
The unknown for tomorrow will be the weather and what teams can adapt to the changing conditions. Predictions have been all over the place, but most forecast show scattered showers through at least the morning. Even if rain somehow misses the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, temperatures will be 10° cooler and winds are expected to be stronger. In other words, it’s going to be a whole lot of different from what drivers have seen all week. The huge difference in conditions has to give a very slight advantage to Hinchcliffe whose Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing squad has many years of experience at this track running in nearly every weather condition imaginable.
That’s going to do it for tonight. It’s been a long day of good qualifying and I’m ready for dinner! I will get some pictures posted tomorrow morning and be back with more thoughts on the qualifying weekend.
3:05 PM — Nearly four hours into Pole Day 2019, and a couple major stories are quickly developing. The lesser surprising of these stories is that Fernando Alonso and McLaren are currently the slowest, and by a fairly significant margin, of those cars that have posted real speeds. (Sage Karam posted a speed that is 10 mph slower than Alonso’s but he had a problem during his run and posted a fourth lap of only 194 mph.)
With the heat of the day, the sun beating strongly on the track and raising track temperatures, and gusty winds, the pursuit of speed has been a frustrating adventure for many teams, most notably McLaren and Carlin. The two teams that have a technical alliance have dealt with several setbacks this weekend, including two major crashes, and are dealing with three drivers who just aren’t finding a comfortable setup for going fast.
At this point, it seems likely that at least one of these cars will not make their way into the Field of 33. The big question remains which one, or ones, it will be.
The other major development this afternoon is that of James Hinchcliffe, who is once again in major jeopardy of missing the Indianapolis 500 after he crashed very hard in Turn 2 on the second lap of his qualifying run. Hinch was running high in the groove when the rear end stepped out and sent James spinning toward the SAFER Barrier. Following massive impact with the left side of his car, Hinch sat motionless in his car for a few moments before being helped to his feet by the AMR IndyCar Safety Team and the IMS Emergency personnel. He was checked, cleared to drive, and released shortly afterwards and immediately said he has confidence in his team to have a car ready to go, possibly as soon as this afternoon.
For the second year in a row, Hinchcliffee will be sweating out qualifying, but unlike 2018, he will still have a chance to make the field tomorrow even if he doesn’t get back out this afternoon.
At the front of the field, Chevrolet cars have the top six positions, led by all three cars from Ed Carpenter Racing. The current quickest is the #21 car of Spencer Pigot with a speed of 230.083 mph, besting Penske’s Will Power by the slimmest of margins after Power posted 230.081 mph. ECR teammates Ed Jones and Ed Carpenter are currently slotted in the fifth and sixth positions. Given the very high air and track temperatures, I don’t expect to see any of those times challenged and expect to see all three ECR drivers in civilian clothes for the rest of the afternoon.
Bumping has begun and drivers currently out of the field are Sage Karam, Ben Hanley, Fernando Alonso, Pato O’Ward, Kyle Kaiser, and James Hinchcliffe. I’m a bit surprised that teams are going immediately back out for additional qualifying attempts without letting the track open for practice.
JR Hildebrand was the first driver to post a second qualifying attempt and was able to increase his position from 27th to 25th, a speed that should be sufficient to lock him into the Top 30. No one else has been successful though to this point.
10:05 AM — Pole Day 2019 has dawned warm, sunny, and muggy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where 30 of the 33 starting positions for next week’s Indianapolis 500 will be locked into the field today. The 90 minutes of practice have now expired, and six drivers turned a total of just 69 laps, topped by Fernando Alonso’s 228.065 mph lap. The morning practice session used to be a busy affair but has mostly become a ghost town in recent years.
The biggest story of the morning thus far is the return of the #32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet for Kyle Kaiser, who destroyed his primary car yesterday and was thought to assuredly be out of options to make the race. However, team owner Ricardo Juncos announced yesterday the team would immediately begin rebuilding the team’s backup car (which was last run by Kaiser at the Circuit of the Americas in March). His team started work around 1:00 yesterday afternoon, worked non-stop through the night, and rolled the car through technical inspection at about 6:30 this morning. Kaiser has turned 32 laps in the rebuilt car this morning with a fastest lap of 226.197 mph. It would be an unbelievable story if Kaiser and Juncos Racing can find their way into the starting lineup after such a disastrous moment yesterday, and there will be thousands of fans pulling from them today.
Rookie Pato O’Ward, driving the backup road course car of Carlin, is in a serious struggle for speed this morning. After crashing hard into the Turn 2 wall on Thursday, O’Ward has found speed difficult since returning to the track yesterday. He was very lucky to have escaped without bigger incident this morning after he very lightly brushed the wall exiting Turn 3 this morning, leaving a black streak on the SAFER Barrier but luckily not causing any damage to his car. His fastest lap of the morning session was “only” 225.507 mph. My feeling is that speed is going to be about 1.5-2 mph slower than necessary to make the field. And the track is only going to slow down throughout the day as the heat comes up.
One piece of news that came out yesterday and I forgot to mention was that IMS announced Dale Earnhart, Jr. will be the honorary pace car driver for the Indianapolis 500. I personally find this to be an unfortunate selection as neither Earnhart himself nor anyone associated with that name has any connection to the Indianapolis 500. This seems like an easy pick that was too greatly influenced by NBC Sports in an attempt to pander to the NASCAR crowd.
I don’t doubt that Jr. has a great appreciation for this race, and even though he never drove in the 500, he is a racer and has a tremendous amount of the race itself and the drivers who compete here. Nonetheless, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has, for the second time in five years chosen a NASCAR driver with no Indianapolis 500 experience to pace the field to the green flag. Can you ever imagine NASCAR having Helio Castroneves drive the pace car for the Daytona 500?
I know I’m not the target demographic that the marketing gurus are trying to reach with their pace car driver. I’m also still of the opinion that neither the pace car driver nor the person waving the green flag make one iota of difference in terms of bringing additional eyeballs to the race. I don’t think that anyone is going to tune into the Indianapolis 500 next Sunday morning just because Matt Damon will be waving the green flag. Nonetheless, that’s the way it goes. But I would still rather than good folks at IMS marketing use the platform of the pace car driver to honor someone that’s at least associated with the Indianapolis 500.
We’ve heard ad nauseam about the 50-year anniversary of Mario Andretti’s victory in 1969. Mario has said before he isn’t really interested in driving the pace car again because he really enjoys driving the Honda two-seater at the start of the races. But 1969 is also the 50th anniversary of Jigger Sirois’s failed qualifying attempt. Wouldn’t it be a neat way to honor Jigger by having him drive the pace car? I know it would never happen, but for the historian in me who couldn’t care less about a pop culture tie-in, I’d love to see it happen. Rant over.
It’s time to go wander the grounds and get a feel for today’s activities. Remember that qualifying from 11:00-5:00 is available exclusively on the NBC Sports Gold IndyCar Pass. Coverage flips to the Big NBC for the final hour when the Top 30 will be locked in.