Takuma Sato, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, will be the first driver in the spotlight when PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying resumes Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Coincidentally, that’s where the Japanese star has spent most of the week, especially Saturday.
The driver who will be the first to qualify in the Fast 12 had been the fastest driver in each of the three days of practice, then found himself in a controversial position in qualifying. After completing his four-lap run of 232.196 mph, Sato failed to exit the backstretch onto the deceleration lane, which surprised the next driver beginning his qualifying run.
Marco Andretti was furious when he came upon his slowing former Andretti Autosport teammate in the middle of Turn 3, and NTT INDYCAR SERIES officials later penalized Sato for impeding Andretti by invalidating his qualification.
Sato didn’t dispute the call. “It was totally fine,” he said, vowing not to have it happen again.
Later, Sato snuck his way into the Fast 12 with the 12th-fastest four-lap average despite brushing the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier in the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR.
Sato considers advancement to Sunday’s second round something of a reprieve given that Saturday wasn’t one of his better days.
“Yeah, I feel that way -- and really fortunate to have that chance,” he said. “Top 12 is something we were aiming for, but it was not in the (way) we expected.”
Johnson Reaches New Speed Limit
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson got the morning off to a rousing start, simulating a four-lap qualifying run in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda at an average speed of 233.771 mph. His fastest lap was 233.961 mph.
Those laps represented the fastest Johnson has ever driven a race car in his life. He felt it, too.
“Every sense in your body is saying you shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “Then, once you turn the (steering) wheel and the car finds a home, it’s not as exciting.”
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Ed Carpenter (No. 33 Alzamend Neuro Chevrolet) led the morning session with a lap of 234.410 mph, the fastest lap turned at IMS since track record-holder Arie Luyendyk ran 239.260 mph in 1996. In qualifying, Carpenter’s teammate, Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Bitcoin Racing Team with BitNile), ran a lap of 234.702 mph, part of the third-fastest four-lap qualifying average in IMS history.
Johnson posted the sixth-fastest qualifying run at 232.398 mph.
“I think the speed scared my (daughters),” he said. “When they saw me, the look in their eyes – they’ve been to plenty of races, but they’ve never looked at me like that.”
Malukas Feeling More Comfortable
Rookie David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) did not earn a berth in Sunday’s Fast 12 – he will start 13th – but he has been one of the pleasant surprises of the first week of this “500.”
The youngest driver in this field had the seventh-fastest lap on Fast Friday and just missed advancing to the second round of qualifying after two four-lap attempts.
Malukas, who was born in Chicago, doesn’t turn 21 until Sept. 27.
“I don’t think people were expecting (results) like this,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t really expecting anything like this.”
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. While Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) was widely praised for delivering a dominating season last year in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – he won 10 of the 20 races to capture the series title – Malukas won seven races and only finished 13 points behind Kirkwood.
Now, Malukas is one of the three rookies set to start in the top 13 of the 106th Running -- the others are Johnson and Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda). Johnson, Grosjean and the rest of the Fast 12 qualifiers will have their starting positions determined by Sunday’s two rounds of qualifying.
“Whatever way it goes, I’m just happy,” Malukas said. “If you were to tell me this when I was a kid, I would just think you were lying, or I’d be pinching myself to wake up.”
A Different Year for Reigning Winner
Helio Castroneves’ No. 06 SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing didn’t have the same magic Saturday that he had a year ago at IMS. The car that started eighth in last year’s race and then went to Victory Lane qualified 26th on this day and was .725 of an mph slower than last year’s average over 10 miles.
Castroneves can trace his slower pace to the fourth qualifying lap, when the car nearly got away from him. He chose to not push things.
“There’s a level between bravery and stupidity, and we were right on the edge of it,” he said.
Odds And Ends
- VeeKay, who posted Saturday’s fastest qualifying average at 233.655 mph, will be aiming for his third top-four start in as many starts in the “500.” He started fourth in 2020 and third last year.
- Drawing an early qualifying number obviously was an advantage Saturday. Five of the first six cars to roll off pit road made the Fast 12. Among the cars running in the cooler first hour, seven advanced to Sunday’s action. The track temperature was 85 degrees when qualifying opened at 11 a.m. By 12:30 p.m., the asphalt heated to 107 degrees.
- The 12 drivers advancing to the second round represent five different teams: Chip Ganassi Racing has five, Ed Carpenter Racing and Arrow McLaren SP two each, and there is one each from Andretti Autosport, Team Penske and Dale Coyne Racing with RWR.
- Dixon and Carpenter have had the most success in “500” qualifying among Fast 12 qualifiers. Dixon has won the NTT P1 Award for the pole four times, Carpenter three. The only other former Indy pole winner in the Fast 12 is Tony Kanaan (No. 1 The American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) won the pole here in 2005.
- Carpenter earned his place in the Fast 12, but he said it wasn’t easy. “That was hard,” he said on the team’s radio during the cooldown lap. “It is not joke out there.”
- Grosjean offered a surprising bit of honesty following Saturday’s qualifying session. “I think the Chevys are faster than us,” he said. “I’m not supposed to say that, but …”
- Two-time race winner Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) will start 29th in next week’s race, the lowest position of his career. In an odd twist, Montoya has started lower with each of his seven races after starting second as a rookie in 2000. He said the car was “so hard to drive” amid the early afternoon wind.
- Row 9 will have three drivers whom prognosticators have targeted as potential race winners. Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian) will start on the inside with Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet) and Castroneves. Herta and McLaughlin already have won races this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, and Castroneves is bidding for a record-setting fifth “500” victory.
- Stefan Wilson (No. 25 DragonSpeed/Cusick Motorsports Chevrolet) did not get a chance to qualify as his engine needed to be replaced after incurring a gearing problem in the morning practice. Wilson becomes the first driver since James Davison in 2017 to start the race without making a qualifying attempt. That year, Davison replaced Sebastien Bourdais, who crashed a qualified car.
- Twenty-six drivers qualified faster than 230 mph.