With a requisite 33 entries for this Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, there won’t be the usual type of pressure during PPG Armed Forces Qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But pressure removed from qualifying at Indy? Not a chance, especially if the gusty wind that challenged the drivers Friday returns for the weekend.
The other pertinent element to qualifying is the balance of the field, both for this “500” and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. Failing to earn a top-12 starting position means missing out on valuable points toward the championship, and there are 13 instances in the current standings where drivers are separated by four points or fewer. Two drivers are tied.
Then there’s the element of so many drivers capable of winning the 106th Running on Sunday, May 29. Only 14 times in history has a winner started in the back half of the field, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Jack Harvey (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) has been around long enough to know that being the 15th this year is a lot to ask given the competition.
Harvey and others might not fear being bumped, but the combination of the aforementioned factors creates a situation that will stir nerves.
“Yes, (this format) takes some of the pressure off,” said Harvey, who sweated through Bump Day in 2018 to earn a last-row starting position. “However, where you put the pressure back on is it’s so hard to (pass cars) right now that you need to qualify as far forward as possible.”
Harvey said Indy should now be considered in the same category as other circuits on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule.
“If you want to have a good shot at (winning the race), we have to be starting (near the front),” he said.
Three-fourths of all Indy winners started in the first four rows, including the past six. Ryan Hunter-Reay (19th in 2014) was the last winner to start in the back half of the field.
The weekend’s other stress will come from having to qualify three times for any driver with designs on winning the NTT P1 Award, which comes with 12 points, $100,000 and bragging rights as the fastest – and arguably the bravest – driver in this event.
“(Qualifying weekend) will be a little bit different, but I can assure you that the stress level for me and the intensity of qualifying (remains),” said Graham Rahal, who drives the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for RLLR. “It’s all the same all the time: You want to go put your best foot forward and drive your best for laps, which seems easy, but it’s not at all, particularly those last two laps that are tricky.
“Hopefully we can do that.”
Rahal: Turn the Page
Rahal said his public rift with Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda), which stems from comments Rahal made after their contact last month in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park, is in the past.
“I said what I said, and I can guarantee you Monday morning (after that) my mind was on something completely different,” Rahal said Friday. “I’m not somebody that’s going to dwell on the past.”
Rahal noted that the two veteran drivers raced wheel-to-wheel last week in the GMR Grand Prix without issues.
“So, it doesn’t carry over,” Rahal said. “We just turn the page.”
Ganassi, Indy Celebrating 40 Years Together
Chip Ganassi, whose Indianapolis-based NTT INDYCAR SERIES team has won the “500” four times – the owner has a fifth counting his association with Patrick Racing in 1989 – had an interesting reaction Friday to seeing a photograph from his rookie qualifying run at IMS in 1982.
“Look at that hair,” he said, laughing.
This marks the 40th anniversary of Ganassi’s debut in the race, and he made four more starts as a driver before beginning his path to becoming one of the most successful team owners in motorsports history. It seems so long ago, he said.
“I had my last class (at Duquesne University in his native Pittsburgh) during one week, and that weekend I was here for opening weekend,” Ganassi said. “Then I missed commencement because I was qualifying here at Indy.”
Ganassi started 11th for that race and finished 15th. His best Indy finish was eighth in his second attempt, in 1983.
Ganassi was part of what turned out to be a strong rookie class that included Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Hector Rebaque, Herm Johnson and Jim Hickman, who won the Rookie of the Year Award. Then, the start of the race was marred by the controversial accident of Kevin Cogan, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.
“Quite an experience,” Ganassi said.
Mears Enjoyed Participation in ‘The Club’
Rick Mears, the third driver to win a fourth Indianapolis 500, said Friday that last year’s gathering of the other four-time winners – Foyt, Al Unser and Helio Castroneves, which was featured in the “Pennzoil presents The Club” documentary – was “a great opportunity” for all.
“The timing of it, especially to be able to be there with Al still with us was great,” he said. “To be able to spend that kind of time – as much as we’ve been together over the years, you never get that opportunity (to talk). The calendars are going different directions, and on race weekends you’re always busy.
“(Penske Entertainment) did a great job of organizing it, keeping it very relaxed … it just made for a good, calm day.”
Mears said it was the first time he had seen Foyt that relaxed “since the last time he was in a race car.” That was 1993.
Mears showed his relaxed side by joking that he didn’t want Castroneves to win a fifth “500.”
“I’m not going to be supportive,” he said while trying to keep a straight face. “No, as a matter of fact, I told him just the other day … if you win that fifth, we’re going to kick you out of the club, and you’re going to be all by yourself (with) nobody to hang out with. So, be careful.”
Odds And Ends
- Team Penske is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first “500” victory, a race won in 1972 by the late Mark Donohue. Donohue’s sons, David and Michael, will be at IMS this weekend along with three crew members from that entry: Karl Kainhofer, Don Cox and John “Woody” Woodard.
- Team Penske President Tim Cindric didn’t join Roger Penske’s race team until 2000, but he has a unique connection to Donohue’s victory. His father, Carl, helped build the car’s engine.
- Race rookie Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 PeopleReady Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) said he has watched every past “500” he could find on YouTube, and he took particular notice of Alexander Rossie’s 2016 victory. “How he managed to save that amount of fuel coming in as a rookie,” he said. “It’s one way that I can learn as much as possible.”
- Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) has found his first “500” to be a unique experience, especially the pranks drivers play on each other. “In 19 years of being a Cup driver, I never stepped out of my motorhome and looked around with caution or concern, and I’ve done that every day I’ve been here,” he said. “It’s a different world.”
- Johnson asked if anyone has considered Conor Daly (No. 20 BitNile Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing) might have “bamboozled himself” to get more attention. “They keep telling me that that stuff in the hot tub (were things) kids play with, and I can’t think of a bigger kid out there (than Daly),” he said. Daly responded that he wouldn’t have spoiled his $600 hot tub on the first day of practice, which was Tuesday. “I see guilt all over the face of (Johnson),” Daly wrote on social media.
- Continuing what has been tradition, the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie class came to IMS on Friday to take in the sights and sounds.