Will Power

Will Power wasn’t supposed to be here, sliding his car through Turn 2 in Sunday’s Last Chance Qualifying session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, bracing for the fast-approaching outside wall.

And in an instant, smack – a tire mark left on the SAFER Barrier.

Power didn’t know what to think. His wife gasped on pit road, turning quickly to see if his car had slowed.

“I felt it and (thought) there’s a good chance (the suspension) is slightly bent,” Power said later. “I knew it was going to make it very loose turning into (Turns) 3 and 4.”

But Power was out of alternatives, and there were still two corners to pedal to finish the run. He could only hope to avoid the embarrassment two other Team Penske “500’’ winners – Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. – endured in 1995 when they failed to qualify that year. Now, Power felt that in the pit of his stomach.

“I had to hold it wide open – otherwise I wouldn’t make the show,” he said. “I had no choice.”

Power crossed the finish line with a four-lap average of 228.876 mph, the slowest of the two cars that had gone to that point. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Sage Karam had run 229.156 mph in the No. 24 DRR-AES Indiana Chevrolet.

There was an eerie sense about IMS as Power rolled his No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet down pit road and came to a stop. Was this the moment history repeated itself? Was another of Roger Penske’s stars soon to be kicked out of the Indianapolis 500? Even Penske couldn’t say.

“I’m not sure what I felt,” he said.

In a bit of irony, Power sat in his car as a driver Penske invested in for this race made her four-lap run. Driving the No. 16 Rocket Pro TPO Chevrolet of Paretta Autosport, Simona De Silvestro had turned laps nearly identical to Power in Saturday’s first day of Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying, and she all but matched him with this run, too. But she finished a tick behind at 228.353 mph to assume the provisional 33rd and final position for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Power took a deep breath.

“Stressful, man. Stressful,” he said. “I knew it was going to be hard, and it was.”

Over the next hour, AJ Foyt Racing’s Charlie Kimball (No. 11 Tresiba Chevrolet) and Top Gun Racing rookie RC Enerson (No. 75 Top Gun Racing Chevrolet) took two shots each at bumping De Silvestro and Power, but those efforts were in vain. Kimball’s best run was 227.811 mph, Enerson’s was 227.298 mph.

Kimball said his team even put an additional 700 pounds of springs in the car in a bid to generate more speed than the car had Saturday. “And we went the same speed,” he said.

Power, who has won more poles (62) than all but one driver in INDYCAR SERIES history, had withstood his first Bump Day.

“At this place, you never know,” he said. “Someone can go out, the wind can be (favorable), and they can trim (the car’s aerodynamics) and they can knock you out. (It happened to Fernando) Alonso (in 2019). You can’t come into this race thinking you’re in.”

“That’s why I never said I’m racing in the Indy 500,” said Kimball, who failed to qualify for the first time. “I say I’m attempting to qualify for my 11th. There are no guarantees at this racetrack. There never has been, and there never should be.

“As someone on the outside looking in, there never should be guarantees at this racetrack because that’s what it’s built on. That’s something 100 years won’t change.”

Enerson was resigned to the fact it was a heck of an effort for the small team located 4 miles west of IMS on Crawfordsville Road. Top Gun began receiving boxes of car parts not much before its competition participated in INDYCAR’s open test at the Speedway on April 8-9.

“While today was not the day we wanted, we couldn’t be more proud of every single hard-working person on this crew,” the team said in a tweet. “Also, a ginormous thank you to the fans. Your support could be felt by everyone on the crew. Thank you.”

When the gun sounded to end the session, Beth Paretta clapped her hands, hugged a member of her “Female Forward” crew, exhaled and looked toward the sky with eyes closed. “Thank you,” her expression suggested.

De Silvestro earned her sixth starting position in the race but first since 2015. Karam will start 31st for the third consecutive year and the fourth time in his eight-race “500” career.

“It’s massive,” de Silvestro said of earning a starting position. “If you look at the team and the girls working on the team, they’re on it like everyone is really focused. I want to inspire a lot of young girls to be who they want to be.”

What stood out was the sportsmanship exhibited. Power was one of the first to congratulate De Silvestro, and he embraced with Kimball. There were winners on days like this, but there are no losers.

“The opportunity to come out here and do this with this pressure? Who gets to say they get to do that, and they get to do that?” Kimball said. “It’s got to be like walking on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Like hearing your name in an introduction at the Super Bowl. Skating onto the ice for a Stanley Cup playoff (game).

“You walk onto pit lane, put on a helmet and you have the ability to qualify for the Indy 500. That’s awesome.”

But Kimball also was honest with himself. “It hurts. Man, it hurts.”

A Win for Race for Equality & Change

Penske has made inclusion and diversity a hallmark of his first 17 months owning IMS and INDYCAR, and it paid dividends Sunday when De Silvestro and the female-powered Paretta Autosport earned a starting position for the 105th Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Last year was the first “500” since 1999 that no women drove in the race, and that, along with a desire to have the sport be more inclusive, led Penske to create the “Race for Equality & Change” initiative.

Thus, Penske was overjoyed when De Silvestro made the race.

“To have a woman in this race was one of my really No. 1 goals after last year,” he said.

Penske also had high praise for INDYCAR’s qualifying format that generated significant weekend drama and large crowds both days.

“I think if you look at the numbers, yesterday is the best Saturday we’ve had since 2016,” Penske said. “In a world that’s upside down with COVID, I’d say we’ve made some good progress.”

Odds and Ends

  • Pole winner Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda) has had several near-misses here since winning the “500” from the pole in 2008, but team owner Chip Ganassi said the event owes the six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion nothing. “You have to earn everything you do here,” Ganassi said.
  • Dixon became one of five drivers in history with at least four poles. Rick Mears holds the record with six. Rex Mays, A.J. Foyt and Helio Castroneves also have four.
  • This is the second time a Team Penske car will start from the back row of the Indianapolis 500, but it is the first time due to speed. Mario Andretti was forced to start at the rear of the field in 1978 after missing qualifying due to racing in Formula One’s Belgian Grand Prix. Mike Hiss qualified the car eighth.
  • Ed Carpenter tweeted the following after getting back to his phone after a 233.920-mph first lap that sent the crowd into a frenzy: “Thank you friends! I can’t hear the cheers, but I feel them.”
  • The field average of 230.294 mph broke the event record set in 2014 (229.382 mph).
  • According to a stat from Jake Query of the INDYCAR Radio Network, this is the first time the two youngest drivers in the field (Colton Herta and Rinus VeeKay) will start on the front row.
  • Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) had the fastest car in Sunday’s hour-long morning practice. He later said he was testing conditions for Meyer Shank Racing teammate Helio Castroneves, who qualified eighth in the Fast Nine Shootout in the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda.
  • Karam had fast friends supporting him in his pit area. Among them were 2020 “500” polesitter and fellow Nazareth, Pennsylvania, resident Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly. “I was here in 2011,” Andretti said of Bump Day, “and it’s no fun.” Andretti will be Karam’s best man in his July 16 wedding.

Next up for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge participants is a two-hour practice during Friday’s Miller Lite Carb Day. The session begins at 11 a.m. (ET). The 500-mile race is Sunday with NBC’s and the INDYCAR Radio Network's live broadcast beginning at 11 a.m.