Marcus Ericsson

Marcus Ericsson escaped his own mistake Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Graham Rahal escaped the bubble – again – in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Such as it was for two of the biggest stars of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, who will start next weekend’s “500” from the last row.

At least they have a row to start in.

For most of the four-driver Last Chance Qualifying session, it appeared Ericsson, the winner of the 2022 “500,” would be the one left behind. He miscalculated the lap he was on in his four-lap qualifying run, lifting just after taking the white flag. Then, with time running out in the hold-your-breath session, he had to hold on to earn the 32nd starting position.

Ericsson’s four-lap average – 230.027 mph in the No. 28 Delaware Life Honda – was a tick better than Rahal’s 229.974 mph in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda, earning him a safe stop in the 33-car field with Nolan Siegel’s final run still to come in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda.

Rookie Siegel couldn’t find the magic, glancing off the outside wall in Turn 1 before sliding and spinning to a stop against the Turn 2 barrier. On pit road, Rahal exhaled. A second disaster had been averted.

Rahal refused to outwardly celebrate, knowing full well the emotional pain that Siegel and Dale Coyne Racing felt. That’s why Rahal was quick to congratulate all three of the Last Chance Qualifying participants while all were still on pit road.

“I know how hard this is, and I know how hard it is to miss (the show),” the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver said. “I respect the hell out of those people. There’s no reason to celebrate. We’re 33rd. That’s not where we should be; that’s not where we want to be. But we’re in the show.

“We’re in. That’s all I can say.”

Ericsson and Rahal will start in the back of next weekend’s race along with Dale Coyne Racing’s Katherine Legge, who delivered the fastest four-lap qualifying average – 230.092 mph in the No. 51 e.l.f. Cosmetics Honda – of the four drivers in the Last Chance Qualifying round. Rahal will make his 17th start, Ericsson his sixth, Legge her fourth.

Ericsson has finished first and second in the past two “500s,” but it will take something the event has never seen for him to score another victory. Ray Harroun (1911) and Louis Meyer (1936) have come the farthest to win the race – they each started 28th.

Ericsson and Rahal can take solace in knowing that Scott Goodyear drove from 33rd to finish second in 1992 while Jim Rathmann (1957) and Mario Andretti (1981) finished second after starting 32nd. Moving forward in a competitive field can be done, but there will be more challenging moments than others starting near the front will face, particularly early.

Ericsson shouldn’t be in this position, but a three-hit accident off Turn 4 earlier in the week put his Andretti Global program behind. The team never seemed to get the backup car to match the speed of Ericsson’s primary car, and he seemed out of sorts each day after.

There was no better example of that than in Sunday’s first run. Just after crossing the Yard of Bricks after his third lap, he stunningly lifted off the gas pedal. A call on the team radio implored him to keep going. His speed on that final lap was 195.411 mph.

“I can’t believe I did that,” the veteran driver said.

Double trouble came in the form of a hot track – temperatures soared in excess of 130 degrees – and a hot engine. Andretti Global tried to cool the latter by having Ericsson circulate around the 2.5-mile oval at a reduced pace, and it apparently did enough to help the situation. At 5 p.m., with just a few minutes left in the session, he rolled off pit road for a final opportunity.

“The car had been hard to drive since my crash,” he said. “It was a very, very tough mental challenge, for sure.”

Remember, Ericsson still harbors championship hopes despite a difficult start to the season. Failing to earn a starting spot in the “500” would have been disastrous.

For Rahal, getting bumped two years in succession would have been even worse.

“It never feels calm, it never feels good,” Rahal said of sitting on the bubble with time running out. “At least this time I got out of the car and was on my feet to see the verdict of what was going to happen instead of watching a tablet (in the cockpit on pit road).

“The way the rules are written for the (Last Chance Qualifying), it’s not favorable for those on the bump. You can’t move. If you pull out of line, you pull your time. You’re not allowed to make the adjustments on the car that you’d like to proactively. You’ve got to wait to see and then (go). You can change tires and put in fuel and that’s about it.”

And wait.

“It’s not a good feeling,” he said.

Rahal knows full well that Indy has a history of leaving stars out. Bobby Rahal was a three-time and reigning series champion when he missed the show here in 1993. Roger Penske’s organization missed it altogether in 1995 when former “500” winners Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. couldn’t find sufficient speed a year after they dominated the race.

James Hinchcliffe was pushed out in 2015. Two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso was unceremoniously excluded in 2019. Rahal was dumped last year – by teammates Jack Harvey, no less. Heartbreak often happens here, and it nearly happened again Sunday.

Siegel came within a whisker of earning his first “500” start with Sunday’s first qualifying attempt, a four-lap average of 229.566 mph. Rahal’s run just happened to be a tick better at 229.974 mph.

“That was the best four laps I’ve run around here – ever,” said Siegel, a 19-year-old INDY NXT by Firestone race winner and championship contender. “Some of the best four laps I’ve ever done, and it felt really nice. It just wasn’t good enough.

“(We) took a swing at it.”

Rahal was impressed.

“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Nolan,” he said. “As I said on TV, he may be a new name to a lot of people, but he’s a name you guys are going to become familiar with. He’s won at every level; he’s won at everything he’s done. He’ll be here; he’s going to be winning here. There’s no doubt about that.”

Meanwhile, the 33-car show goes on. With Ericsson. With Rahal.