INDIANAPOLIS — Will Power was the most relieved man in Roger Penske’s garage Saturday.
After spending most of the week frustrated as he tried to find speed, Roger Penske’s team finally came up with the answers the Australian needed to move into position for his first Indianapolis 500 pole.
Power posted a four-lap average of 228.844 mph — significantly faster than defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was second at 228.282 — heading into Saturday’s nine-car shootout for the top starting spot in the May 26 race.
It was a refreshing change.
“We struggled early in the week, we just finally got quicker and quicker,” Power said. “One more step and I think it would be 230.”
He’ll get that chance in the shootout.
But it was a stark contrast to the guy who looked demoralized following another frustrating practice session Thursday. Back then, Power seemed resigned to the fact he wouldn’t be in contention for the shootout.
His perspective started to change Friday following a major jump up the speed charts. Power’s steady progression continued Saturday morning when he posted the fastest lap in pre-qualifying practice. Then, after waiting through a rain delay of roughly 2˝ hours and watching 17 other drivers making qualifying attempts, Power finally got a chance to show the crowd what the No. 12 car could do.
Unlike so many others cars on Indy’s tricky 2.5-mile oval, Power didn’t lose a thing as temperatures cooled and the rain washed away some of the grip and drew loud roars by posting back-to-back laps of 229.422 and 229.170. He finished the run with laps of 228.526 and 228.260.
Nobody else had a lap faster than 228.684, putting Power in a strong position.
What changed? Power’s crew switched to the setup rookie AJ Allmendinger was using in practice, a setup that kept him among the fastest drivers in practice.
“There was one change that we did that it definitely made the car quick and we know what that is,” Power said.
He wasn’t giving away the secret, though it clearly worked for his teammates, too.
For part of the afternoon, Penske’s three drivers -- Power, Brazil’s Helio Castroneves, a three-time 500 winner, and Allmendinger --held the top three spots.
Then the Andretti Autosport drivers who dominated this week’s practice suddenly turned the shootout into a two-team race.
Defending series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay broke up the Penske monopoly. Two cars later rookie Carlos Munoz of Colombia, moved to third on the starting grid with a four-lap average of 228.171.
“That was a great run for us. I’d like to do a few things differently, but not many,” Hunter-Reay said.
Two cars after that, Marco Andretti, wound up in the sixth spot after posting an average of 227.893. Two-time race winner James Hinchliffe and E.J. Viso, Michael Andretti’s other drivers, were seeded eighth and ninth heading into the shootout. Hinchcliffe is from Canada, and Viso is Venezuelan.
The only non-Penske or non-Andretti driver to make the shootout was Ed Carpenter, the stepson of IndyCar founder Tony George. He was fifth fastest at 227.952.
There weren’t many surprises.
Each of the nine drivers in the shootout were powered by the strong Chevrolet engines. That left the Honda teams, including all four drivers for Chip Ganassi’s heavyweight team — Australian Ryan Briscoe, New Zealand’s Scott Dixon, Scotland’s Dario Franchitti and Charlie Kimball — out of the front three rows. Franchitti, like Castroneves, is trying to become the fourth member of the four-time winners club and will start from the middle of the sixth row, 17th, after going 226.069.
Also out of pole contention was points leader Takuma Sato of Japan. He posted a four-lap average of 225.892 and will start 18th, the outside of Row 6.
Eight drivers qualified but were later bumped out of the top 24 starting spots. Jakes and Briscoe were the only ones to make it back in.
The list of drivers still trying to make the field includes 1996 Indy winner Buddy Lazier, British driver Pippa Mann, who hasn’t raced since suffering injuries in the tragic season-ending race at Las Vegas in 2011 and Brazil’s Ana Beatriz. Mann and Beatriz, who drive for Dale Coyne Racing, are trying to become the first female teammates to start the 500.
Two drivers, Conor Daly and Michel Jourdain Jr., weren’t quick enough to even qualify for the 33-car starting field and James Jakes’ first qualifying attempt was later disqualified after failing post-qualifying inspection. Jakes tried to requalify two more times, finally making it into the 24th spot late in the day.
The final nine starting spots will be filled during the second and final day of qualifications Sunday — a day Britain’s Katherine Legge is expected to complete her first laps since being hired by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to drive the No. 81 car. The late addition gives race organizers 34 driver-car combinations, meaning one driver won’t start May 26.
And it won’t be Power.
“Pole is not the most important thing for the race, but it is a very big deal at this place to get pole,” Power said. “I’ve been very close a couple of times. I would love to get it and I think we have a chance today.”MORE IN Sports Wire
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