Target Chip Ganassi Racing confirmed their status as the team to beat by seizing the first two qualifying positions for the Indy500 in a tactically intriguing pole shoot-out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
New Zealander Scott Dixon will start the race on pole, with Brit Dan Wheldon next to him. Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe fills out the front row. Behind them will be Briscoe’s team-mate Helio Castroneves and the Andretti Green pair of Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan.
The remaining drivers to book their places in the race are Marco Andretti, Vitor Meira, Hideki Mutoh, Ed Carpenter and Tomas Scheckter.
Qualifying for the May 25 race is settled in batches of 11 drivers: places 12-22 will be decided on Sunday (May 11), the next 11 will be decided on May 17, then May 18 will be “bump day”, when drivers who have thus far failed to qualify can attempt to pick off the slowest of the 33.
Many of the teams knew they had no chance of making the top 11 and just used the day for practice, but 17 drivers made serious attempts at filling the first 11 slots.
IndyCar rules allow drivers three shots at qualifying, but a driver can only use their second or third attempts if they agree to withdraw the speed they set earlier and start from scratch.
It’s this last rule that made the day so tactically interesting, as drivers who had qualified strongly, but just missed pole, gambled by withdrawing those laps to have another shot at glory.
Patrick set the early pace, but was knocked off pole by Wheldon. Later, first Briscoe and then Dixon withdraw previous strong laps to go fastest. Finally, with 21 minutes left, Wheldon cancelled his earlier pole-setting speed to try again. He was fast enough to outpace Briscoe – but not his team-mate, and he had to settle for second.
“I think it’s a great effort,” he said. “To be one and two is an impressive feat. Yeah, I’m disappointed, but the biggest thing is to be happy for the team because they did a good job.
“The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest race in the world, and I would certainly take the race win over the pole, but, at the end of the day, it is something to be proud of. I have been fortune enough to win a championship and a Indianapolis 500, I won Honda’s first race in Japan, so the pole would be nice, but I am not taking the pole if it takes away from the race stuff. I would much rather win the race.”
Dixon said: “I was really worried about my team-mate – we knew how hard they had been working all afternoon.
“I think for once we just went at the right time, because the wind changed and there was a really bad cross-wind. Other than that, the two cars have been so similar.”
Justin Wilson was one of a number of ex-Champ Car drivers who tried unsuccessfully to make the top 11. His team-mate Graham Rahal reached as high as 11th but was bumped by Mutoh’s late run and must try again tomorrow.
Wilson said: “The first qualifying run the McDonald’s car did was the quickest we’ve run all week outside of a tow so I was quite pleased with that. That made us pretty positive but it wasn’t quite there so we made some changes and went back out to test them.
“We did a run in practice and it still wasn’t quite quick enough but we thought â€˜What have we got to lose? Let’s go for it.’ We went out and just couldn’t quite get the speed and I think it had cooled off enough that we picked up enough downforce that we went one-tenth of a mile an hour slower on each lap. It just dropped away.
“It was disappointing because I thought for a second we had a chance. That is obviously what was happening to everyone else as well. The pace just slowed down.
“The plan now is to wake up in the morning, look out the window and see what type of weather we have. If its raining we’ll wait until next weekend. The McDonald’s car has been very quick. Barring any problems we should be okay for next weekend if it gets rolled over and they set the 22 then. We’ll take it as it comes.”