Changes to time trials could shake up Indy 500 qualifying
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INDIANAPOLIS — On the eve of the Indianapolis 500 time trials, three-time winner Helio Castroneves suggested everyone exhale and avoid getting to worked up over the seemingly convoluted time trials format.
Castroneves argues it isn't about where a driver starts or the average speed of the four-lap qualifying run. It's about making the 33-car field for the 98th running of the IndyCar Series' premier event May 25 at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
On the other hand, Castroneves' Team Penske teammate, 2000 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, complicated matters by explaining the risk involved with the new qualifying format.
“By trying to get in that top nine, if you're on the bubble, you can put yourself in a bad situation for risk,” Montoya said. “If you look at qualifying runs, you can see where (other drivers) did with the tools. Did they put on a stiffer bar, a softer bar, a wedge or what gears he was running?”
Even Montoya had to shake his head after that exhausting explanation about taking away a posted speed that could risk taking a driver out of Sunday's Fast Nine qualifying finale. Only the top nine qualifiers will be in position to contend for the pole.
“You want to have speed,” said defending series champion Scott Dixon, who finish 14th last year after starting 16th. “If you look at 2012, we (winner Dario Franchitti and Dixon) were pretty down at qualifying, yet we came back for a 1-2 finish. But you always want to make it easier for yourself.
“I don't think it (format change) changes a whole lot. In retrospect, you have to put your best foot forward. After the first round of qualifying, you're figuring out where you stand.
“It adds a little drama to qualifying, but it's going to be a better show for everyone to watch,” Dixon added. “The last few years were less stressful because you knew if you messed up on the first (qualifying attempt), you were still going to have opportunities (to win the pole).”
For Dixon, winning the pole still matters, but it's even more important that his engineers find the perfect setup that will provide maximum horsepower and downforce that will keep him in contention over the final laps.
“I think we've put ourselves in a good position so far,” Dixon said. “Once we get to qualifying, we'll see where we really stand.”
While championship points and money are at stake during this weekend's qualifying, the time trials are another avenue to prepare these open-wheel machines for a grueling 200-lap race that often is won with patience and perseverance than speed.
Yet, winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500 will require a certain amount of patience this time around. Drivers must pick their spots to make their qualifying runs, especially if rain factors into the outcome Saturday.
On Thursday, drivers were still trying to mileage out their engines. Some actually were in race mode instead of searching for the right qualifying trim. On Friday, they were limited in their time trials preparation as rain washed out much of the scheduled six-hour practice session.
Fox Chapel native Chip Ganassi said the lack of practice time over the past two days put drivers and teams in the precarious position of rolling the dice during qualifying.
“We're going to play every card we have to play for qualifying,” said Ganassi, who is seeking his fifth victory at the Brickyard.
Roger Penske, whose drivers have won 15 times at the Brickyard since 1966, discussed with Castroneves the importance of getting all three Team Penske cars in the Fast Nine.
“I think that's going to be critical to be in the top nine for Sunday (qualifying),” Penske said. “They'll make a run once, twice. They've done it before. You'll see us take our time down, go out and run again. The way the cars are this year, we're ready to go.”
Will Power isn't perched atop the IndyCar Series points chart because of an unwillingness to gamble. However, even he is unlikely to take unnecessary chances.
“You don't want to go in the wall,” Power said. “We've got no feel for it right now where we stack up.”
Power and others will roll the dice to collect the valuable qualifying points. They have the option of canning their first run in an effort to chase after the pole, especially if they're bumped from the front row.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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