IRL: Indy 500 field finalised – Tagliani, Lazier, Barrett miss out

By Andy Darley

CalendarMonday, May 18th, 2009

 
 

Update: Conquest have switched Bruno Junqueira out of the #36 car and put Alex Tagliani into it instead. More at the bottom of this story.

The final day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 ended in high drama, as IRL poster-boy Ryan Hunter-Reay knocked Alex Tagliani out of the field of 33 cars with the last laps of the day.

Conquest Racing’s Tagliani was queued up and ready to go out on track the moment Hunter-Reay ended his four-lap run, but lost his chance to grab the place back when the gun to end qualifying was fired while the Texan was still on track.

Hunter-Reay, who had been struggling for pace since practice began a week ago, is the face of a high-profile advertising campaign for the entire Indy Racing League by clothing chain Izod – which would have made his failure to get into the race, had it happened, a considerable embarrassment to the series.

Britain’s Mike Conway was one of a number of drivers who began Sunday with a place in the field, but chose to withdraw their qualifying performances and try to set a faster speed that would stand more chance of surviving the day’s quicker conditions.

Milka Duno and Nelson Philippe, who had both looked under threat of being bumped from the field, re-qualified with times that took them out of danger but John Andretti struggled for pace and was bumped by Bruno Junqueira, who was running his first laps of the season after signing a late deal to race for Conquest.

With neither Stanton Barrett nor Buddy Lazier looking seriously as if they would qualify, the remainder of the day turned into a battle by Andretti to hit a moving target as successive drivers withdrew their earlier speeds and ran again, increasing the speed needed for him to bump his way into the field.

Eventually, with time running out, he produced a four-lap average of 221.316mph that guaranteed his place in the field at the expense of Hunter-Reay. By now the slowest driver among the 33 qualifiers was Tagliani, who was 26th overnight and seemingly safe.

He had twice been queued up by Conquest to go out and improve his Saturday speed, and twice withdrawn. By the time he joined the line of cars for a third time and reached the front, it was too late and Hunter-Reay was about to use the final run of the day to bump him from the field.

“I feel so bad for Tags and the Conquest Racing team,” said IRL president of competition and racing operations Brian Barnhart, who broke the bad news to Tagliani.

“They work their tails off all year, and I’ll tell you, leaning in the cockpit and telling them they weren’t going to get to go because we’re out of time and they’re a lame duck and he’s either in or out and it’s not under his control was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was just a devastating look in his eyes.”

“There’s no right way to do it,” said Hunter-Reay. “You just kind of see what comes. You either go on the offense and pull yourself out of line and go qualify, or you play defense and wait until you get bumped and go qualify. That was the hairiest day I’ve ever had, I think. I’ve never been so happy to be last place.”

A bitterly disappointed Tagliani said: “The car was plenty fast, it was safe to drive. The worst thing is we didn’t go out to protect ourselves. We kept putting it in line. Right now I’m wondering why we didn’t go out and just run to protect our position when we knew we could go out and just do the lap we needed to do – even probably get the fastest lap of the day.”

The veteran Andretti said the key to his qualifying effort was borrowed parts from Conway’s car: “We went back and took Mike Conway’s shocks and springs and put them on my car. It made the car really nice to drive. It was a nice run. I give all the credit to my team-mates – as a group we were doing a good job.

“I’m exhausted. I don’t want to do this any more, to be honest. Just coming down pit road, you would have thought that I won the race. I couldn’t hear the crowd, but I could see them standing and waving. The fans have always been behind me at Indianapolis. I’m the old man, and I had to fight the hardest, and it’s not supposed to be that way. “

Update: Following their failure to qualify their primary driver, Conquest chose to pull Junqueira from the race and put Tagliani in the car instead. He will take the final place in the line-up, the outside of row 11.

Team owner Eric Bachelart said: “He has been our primary driver since the start of the season and we felt that it was in the best interest of the team and our partners to have him in the car for the Indy 500.”

The drivers performed the swap-over with diplomacy, drawing a veil over the strategy blunder that saw Tagliani fail to qualify. Junqeiura said: “It’s a shame that Alex got bumped out of the field at the end.

“I knew coming into this that Alex is Conquest’s primary driver and that if something happened to the first car that I would likely give him my place and I completely understand it.”

And Tagliani added: “I want to first of all say thank you to Bruno for being so understanding and to the team for taking this decision. We have been building this long-term relationship for a while now and I’m more than thrilled to be able to pursue that by taking part in my first Indy 500.

“Obviously, it would have been much sweeter if we would have had both cars in the show because Bruno and I had fast and identical cars. It’s pretty much a fluke that I didn’t make the field. We just got caught out.”

Indy 500 final qualifying positions

Following Conquest’s driver switch

Row Inside Middle Outside
1 Flag of Brazil Hélio Castroneves
Team Penske
Flag of Australia Ryan Briscoe
Team Penske
Flag of Great Britain Dario Franchitti
Target Chip Ganassi Racing
2 Flag of the USA Graham Rahal
Newman/Haas/Lanigan
Flag of New Zealand Scott Dixon
Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Flag of Brazil Tony Kanaan
Andretti Green Racing
3 Flag of Brazil Mario Moraes
KV Racing Technology
Flag of the USA Marco Andretti
Andretti Green Racing
Flag of Australia Will Power
Penske Racing
4 Flag of the USA Danica Patrick
Andretti Green Racing
Flag of Great Britain Alex Lloyd
Sam Schmidt / Ganassi
Flag of Brazil Raphael Matos
Luczo Dragon Racing
5 Flag of Canada Paul Tracy
KVM Racing Technology
Flag of Brazil Vitor Meira
AJ Foyt Enterprises
Flag of Great Britain Justin Wilson
Dale Coyne Racing
6 Flag of Japan Hideki Mutoh
Andretti Green Racing
Flag of the USA Ed Carpenter
Vision Racing
Flag of Great Britain Dan Wheldon
Panther Racing
7 Flag of the USA AJ Foyt IV
AJ Foyt Enterprises
Flag of the USA Scott Sharp
Panther Racing
Flag of the USA Sarah Fisher
Sarah Fisher Racing
8 Flag of the USA Davey Hamilton
Dreyer & Reinbold / Kingdom
Flag of the Netherlands Robert Doornbos
Newman/Haas/Lanigan
Flag of the USA Townsend Bell
KVM Racing Technology
9 Flag of Spain Oriol Servià
Rahal Letterman
Flag of South Africa Tomas Scheckter
Dale Coyne Racing
Flag of Great Britain Mike Conway
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
10 Flag of the USA John Andretti
Richard Petty / D&R
Flag of Venezuela E. J. Viso
HVM Racing
Flag of Venezuela Milka Duno
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
11 Flag of France Nelson Philippe
HVM Racing
Flag of the USA Ryan Hunter-Reay
Vision Racing
Flag of Canada Alex Tagliani
Conquest Racing

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