Andretti and SPM Show Muscle with Honda in First Day of Indianapolis 500 Qualifying

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cars quals chrisowens imsWe set the field for qualifying yesterday, dividing up the 33 entered cars into two groups. Saturday’s attempts determined who would occupy the first 3 rows on race day and consequently, which nine drivers would have the opportunity to fight for pole position for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Oil. Today, on day 2 of qualifying, we determine grid placement within said groups.

The most surprising part of yesterday’s results was the lack of Ganassi Racing cars in the Fast Nine. The other surprising aspect? Honda-powered entries outnumbering Chevys. What was that about domed skids?

hinchqualschrisownsIMSThe Honda teams that excelled in their efforts were Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. James Hinchcliffe, in a superior example of what determination and focus can produce, placed his No. 5 Arrow-sponsored Honda at the top of the boards after multiple attempts. 230.946 was the fastest lap average of the day and it came at the perfect time, in the midst of one of the most exciting final hours of qualifying I can remember in some time. Seeing the fans stand up and applaud the Canadian with fists pumping and voices cheering was invigorating. There was an energy down the frontstretch that hinted at what we are about to witness here in a week. A sold out crowd in these stands will be part of history and if this weekend is any indication, I anticipate one hell of a show for all of us.

Circling back (in a counter-clockwise direction, preferably), the efforts of Hinchcliffe’s teammate Mikhail Aleshin may have been one of the most gutsy routines in qualifying as we know it. Coming out of turns so high, it was hard to decipher if he was actually kissing the short-chute walls or merely flirting with them. Regardless, this adrenaline-packed yard of bricks was loving it and she rewarded him with a P7 finish. Aleshin, in the No. 7 Doom-sponsored Honda, was another driver who made multiple attempts and received a huge pay off. His last attempt was exhilarating from the moment he took off – beating the gun shot to close the track by maybe, a second. He was the last car of the day to make a run for the Fast Nine, and he did so in thrilling and successful fashion.

It’s important to note that while the format for qualifying has changed, and the field has shrunk from what it was decades ago, the first day of qualifying is still technically “bump day”, it’s just from the Fast Nine now, instead of the overall field of 33. The new format was not just entertaining from my perspective – even the drivers enjoyed it,

“I think it’s cool. A lot of people were kind of giving today flack because there were only 33 cars and it wasn’t really necessarily a Bump Day (in the traditional sense). But I think everybody sitting up here (Hinchcliffe, Bell, Power, Hunter-Reay, Montoya, Aleshin) will tell you that the competitive spirit about trying to get in the Fast Nine, we were stressing between our first and second runs as if we were sitting on the bubble for the race. So there was definitely drama for the race teams and for the drivers with the conditions and a lot of things. Even though we only had 33 cars show up today, I think it was still a very exciting format.” – James Hinchcliffe, SPM

The other Honda team that showed prowess on Saturday was Andretti Autosport. There was talk about Chevy “sandbagging” throughout the first week of practice, which ended up not being the case at all. Apparently, it was hard for folks to wrap their mind around the fact that maybe, just maybe, Honda made some strides recently… and boy did they know how to showcase them. Practice day 1 concluded this past Monday with the five Andretti drivers finishing 1-2-3-4-6. After a rained out session on Tuesday, Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Carlos Munoz (No. 26 UFD Honda) claimed the two fastest spots on Wednesday. Townsend Bell (No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen and Robert Graham Honda) and Munoz took P2 and P3 the following day. Fast Friday had Munoz, Marco Andretti (No. 27 Snapple Honda), Bell and Hunter-Reay as fourth through seventh fastest.

When it came down to the first day of qualifying, the shortened practice sessions (due to weather) ended with rookie Alexander Rossi (No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda) at the top of the boards with 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner, Hunter-Reay behind him in P2. Hunter-Reay, Bell, and Munoz all ran quick enough for the Fast Nine on Saturday evening.

I’ve heard grumbles about this being “just qualifying” and how it (Honda’s success) doesn’t mean anything. Well, I respectfully disagree. It’s the Indianapolis 500… so, I’m pretty sure it matters. Regardless of engine issues or flukes, the results on track are what get inked at the end of the day, and yesterday was an impressive day for Honda. Scream it from the rooftops or ignore it with a brush under the carpet… but it doesn’t change what did indeed happen. And since when is engine manufacturer competition a bad thing? Especially in the IndyCar series. The fact is, fans and administration alike, want to see a third manufacturer come into the game This is not a big secret. If we are going to continue to operate under the same rules and restrictions, then we need to show outsiders with potential interest in our series, that legit competition is not only feasible, but welcomed and encouraged. This is a good thing, guys. Enough with the grumbles.

Am I an optimist? Yes. Do I see the world, or this sport, through rose-colored glasses? Absolutely not. There is a significant difference. The reality is this: what happened on track yesterday was great and I want that drama to continue between the teams, drivers and manufacturers… but it does not guarantee anything going forward. Nothing does. Today, slates are wiped clean and times are scrubbed.

Up to this point in the year, a Team Penske driver has taken every single Verizon P1 Award: Will Power (St. Pete), Helio Castroneves (Phoenix, Long Beach), and Simon Pagenaud (Barber, Grand Prix of Indy). All three of those drivers are in the Fast Nine today, in addition to Ed Carpenter Racing driver Josef Newgarden. Newgarden will do his best to run the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevy quicker than the rest of the pack in an attempt to secure the fourth IndyCar pole position for ECR. Prior poles for the team came via Ed Carpenter here at the IMS oval in 2013 and 2014, and from Newgarden in 2015 at another oval – the Milwaukee Mile.

newgarden quals chrisowens imsSomething about this place. Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She has a way of leveling the playing field. We had the most diverse Firestone Fast 6 we’d seen in years, during the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis last weekend. And this weekend is following suit with four different teams represented in the Fast Nine, as well as seven nationalities. Who is going to take it all and lead the field to green for the 100th Running… a comedic Canadian, a former ‘500’ winning American, a steadfast Australian, an always-smiling Brazilian, a fashion-forward American, a sarcastic American, a guitar-playing Russian, a quiet but strong Colombian, or a focused Frenchman? Tune in later today to find out!

If you aren’t here at the track, the details on how to watch practice live are right here.

Television broadcast coverage starts with ESPN3 at 2:00 p.m.; ABC will pick things up at 4:00 p.m. and run until 6:00 p.m., airing the end of the qualifying session for positions 10-33 and the entirety of the Fast Nine Shootout in addition to the Verizon P1 Award presentation and celebration.

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Photos are property of Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Credit to Chris Owens & Chris Jones).