Random Thoughts On Qualifying Weekend

The starting grid for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is now set. James Hinchcliffe made an emotional and thrilling run for the pole to cap off a day that saw underdog Honda take it to the heavily favored Chevy powerplant. Honda-powered cars made up five of the Fast Nine, and ultimately two of the front row of three. Besides Hinchcliffe on the pole in a Honda, Ryan Hunter-Reay placed his Honda on the outside of Row One.

Josef Newgarden was the lone Chevy sitting in the middle of the front row. The Chevy engine was good, but just not good enough. Three of the four Team Penske cars made the Fast Nine, yet Will Power, starting on the outside of Row Two, will be the highest starting Penske car on the grid. Alongside Power will be the two Hondas of Townsend Bell and Carlos Munoz. That means four of the top six cars on the grid were Hondas. The other two Chevy-powered Penske cars brought up the rear of the Fast Nine.

To say that Chevy got spanked may be a bit harsh, but I think it’s certain to say that they did not have the day they had hoped for. Now the big question remains – which aero kit will race better in traffic next Sunday. I’m still not convinced that we have heard the last from Chevrolet in this year’s "500". Let the speculation begin!

But as far as yesterday’s run for the pole, you would be hard pressed to find someone who is not happy for James Hinchcliffe overcoming his devastating injuries from last year to find himself leading the field to the green flag of the Indianapolis 500.

TV Coverage:  Since Susan and I did not arrive home until close to midnight, we haven’t had a chance to watch any of ABC’s coverage. I still take issue, however, with the fact that qualifying for this event has been reduced to a two-hour TV window each day. I do commend whoever made the decision to start the Fast Nine Shootout at 5:00 instead of 3:00, that makes it more like the old traditional Happy Hour of years past. I will be curious to see if Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear put people to sleep, over-hype everything, or if they treat it with the rational excitement it deserves. Stay tuned.

Ganassi Woes:  Not only is the front row devoid of a Penske or Ganassi car for the first time in a while that I can remember, but the four Ganassi cars didn’t even make it into the Fast Nine. Scott Dixon is the highest-starting Ganassi driver, starting on the inside of the fifth row. Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan will start on the inside and outside of Row Six, respectively. Max Chilton did well to qualify his backup car on the inside of Row Eight after crashing his primary car on Saturday.

With thirteenth being the highest starting position for a Ganassi car in this year’s race, this would appear to be a very un-Ganassi-like year. With that being said, don’t be surprised if a car from the Chip Ganassi stable ends up winning the race.

Andretti Comeback:  Going into the Month of May, everyone (including myself) had basically left Michael Andretti’s team for dead. The Andretti Autosport cars couldn’t get out of their own way earlier this season – especially Marco Andretti. Given the Andretti troubles and the woes of Honda all season, I never expected much more than a whimper from any of the Andretti Autosport cars. How wrong I was!

Michael Andretti placed three of the top five cars on the starting grid. Rookie Alexander Rossi will start in the middle of the Fourth Row, while Marco Andretti will start in the middle of the Fifth Row. If you had told me that five Andretti cars would occupy the first fourteen spots on the grid, I would have laughed. It looks like Michael Andretti and Honda are having the last laugh. Good for them.

Mixed Bag for ECR:  While it’s great that Ed Carpenter’s primary driver, Josef Newgarden, will be starting in the middle of the front row, the rest of the team did not fare so well. JR Hildebrand will start outside Row Five, while Ed Carpenter will start in the middle of the seventh row.

I’m not quite sure what has happened to Ed over the last couple of years. After starting on the pole for two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014, he started twelfth last year and will roll off in the twentieth starting spot next Sunday. It seems that Carpenter is having a hard time getting a handle on the Chevy aero kit. But Ed is a good racer and I’ll be curious to see how he fares in the race.

With Hildebrand starting mid-pack, he really needs to move up and have a strong finish. Hildebrand hasn’t had a full-time ride since John Barnes unceremoniously dumped him two days after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His window of opportunity to ever be considered for another full-time ride is starting to close. JR really needs to make the most of this opportunity if he ever wants to revive his career, and not just be considered as a one-off for the Indianapolis 500.

Foyt’s Forgettable Day:  Alex Tagliani’s crash early on Sunday began what was a mostly forgettable day for AJ Foyt Enterprises. Tagliani’s spectacular-looking crash appeared to do substantial damage to his car, assuring him of starting thirty-third in a thirty-three car field. Quite honestly, I don’t think the crash made that much difference, as Tags was one of the slowest cars on Saturday. You don’t get much slower than the third Foyt car.

Jack Hawksworth didn’t do much better by completing his full run. The only car he was faster than was that sled that Buddy Lazier was driving. Two of the Foyt cars will flank Buddy Lazier in a very underwhelming last row.

The lone bright spot for Foyt was Takuma Sato, whose 228.029 mph was good for the outside of the fourth row. If Sato can keep his nose clean beyond the first turn off the first lap, he might give AJ a decent finish this year.

All in All:  While yesterday gave us a good show and a thrilling result for the pole, I sill don’t care for this format.  We are lucky that more cars weren’t wadded up in pointless "qualifying" runs. To make drivers make a qualifying run on Saturday, only to have their times erased on Sunday and to qualify again is absurd. While I recognize that economic times dictate that they will probably never go back to a two weekend qualifying format – surely that can come up with something more practical than this. The current format needlessly puts its cars and drivers at risk for nothing.

Having said that, I enjoyed the weekend – especially yesterday. The crowds were good and enthusiastic. You could feel the energy from the crowd when Hinchcliffe clinched the pole. No matter what format they follow, it’s hard to replicate the raw emotion derived from watching a driver make a run like that.

With a front row comprised of three very popular drivers – one Canadian and two Americans, from three different teams and representing two different engine manufacturers; this has the makings to be a very interesting Indianapolis 500. We’ve been counting down the days for a year now. It’s almost here. I, for one, can’t wait!

George Phillips

16 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Qualifying Weekend”

  1. Doug Gardner Says:

    Good piece as usual. I was thinking about the “pointless” runs of Saturday as well. Then Sage Karam brings it up as he exits his car. It seems to me that if you don’t get into the fast nine or are not close it is best to pull out of line and make a slow run or aborted run. It puts you early in the day to run like Servia and Chavez. It does seem odd that cars that had no official run Saturday could run for the 10th spot. I would have thought cars that did not or could not post a time Saturday would be relegated to 30th spot at best. I have nothing against Pippa, Chilton or Chavez. But none posted an official time due to accidents or pulling out and aborting a run. But I guess all is well that ends well. The last hour on Saturday was very entertaining.

  2. tonelok Says:

    After spending some time in the turn 1 vista (which has the most unbelievable views in motorsports IMO) my family and I stayed late, since we arrived somewhat late. We were able to catch the top 3 drivers at the bottom of the media center.

    A good word for James Hinchcliffe, who after being interviewed for 2 hours after winning the pole made sure to sign autographs for each and every person (including my 2 young sons, 2 and 4) before leaving what must have been 8pm. His story of overcoming adversity and seeing him making that kind of effort for fans after what must have been a grueling day for him, was inspiring. It seems to me he understands amid what must have been pure exhaustion at that point, how precious life is and that he is truly living a dream. Thank you James, you acquired a lot of fans yesterday.

    Thanks for your post George.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      Wow. Typical of Hinch’s fan-pleasing personality after he grew up as a fan

      • I have to agree with Robin Miller in his Hinch article yesterday. James is the new people’s choice. You couldn’t ask for a better fan friendly personality. His winning the pole Sundat was damn exciting even on TV.

  3. Yannick Says:

    My guess is it’s time for a correction:

    Quote: “All in All: While yesterday gave us a good show and a thrilling result for the pole, I sill don’t are for this format. ”

    I don’t like the current qualifying format either. Was that what you wanted to say about it, too, George?

  4. Take away the two hour window and the switch on Saturday to ESPN News for the last hour, then I have no complaints about the broadcast. I was on the edge of my seat both days.

    I couldn’t be happier about the front row!

  5. I think the most overlooked thing for the weekend was the delay on Saturday, which allowed the track to stay open until 7:00 Eastern. This last hour tracked exactly with the old happy hour. And the speeds, as they always did, picked up as people rushed to run in that last hour to try to break into the top 9. Another great argument to bring back happy hour.

    I enjoyed qualifications as I love being at Indy. But the current format is nothing like it used to be on Pole Day and they would be smart to change it. But I doubt we will see change until we can again get in excess of 35 cars trying to qualify and bring back Bump Day. The chance for a new track record in a few year, as the speeds increase, may also drive a change to bring back the old Pole Day rules and for Pole Day on Saturday.

  6. S0CSeven Says:

    Bravo Hinch, a really brave feat. All who saw it admired every second.
    But for me watching Sam during the qualifying run saying “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon ………. and then a deafening silence while the computers figured it out (was it a 2 seconds or 2 minute wait?) and then ELATION!!!!!! ……………. yeah, that was a feel-good minute.

  7. I really preferred the format of 2011 when teams could make multiple runs, and I think allowing times to stand from Saturday would help free up enough time to do that on Sunday. At least this year there was some legitimate excitement in the Fasts Nine, and no Penske or Ganassi cars in the front row restored my excitement for the 500.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    Two more good stories: Townsend Bell and Oriol Servia.

    • Now, isn’t that the truth. I was hoping Townsend’s time would stand to keep him on the front row, but looks who made it?? I am very happy with the outcome.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    I think this qualifying format generally works well, or at least it does on television and when there is limited to no bumping. I cannot speak for how well it works in person. I don’t mind that multiple qualifying attempts are required, given that a good number of points are awarded to qualifiers and most cars get some valuable ABC TV time on two consecutive days.

    I would offer one complaint about Saturday, though, nothing was awarded beyond spots in the fast 9. The procedure from 2014, and the procedure that was supposed to take place last year, awarded points for Saturday’s qualifying positions, with the Fast 9 earning additional points on Sunday. I was surprised to learn that all points were awarded on Sunday this year. I don’t really get why this changed, the previous system seemed to best incentivize effort on both days, awarding points for Saturday’s effort and track position for Sunday’s.

    If car counts increase in the future, something similar to older qualifying procedures ought to be introduced. With the counts we currently have, I think this format does a fine job making 500 qualifying as much of an event as possible.

  10. hey George. blame abc and mark miles for the format.

    look at whose running things from a team aspect to why there aren’t more teams.

    all that needs to be said on both fronts. glad for all the starters and I love the front row!

  11. Brian McKay Says:

    You wrote very well, George. I thank you.

  12. SkipinSC Says:

    I made the argument on Mark Wilkinson’s blog that the current format would work nicely IF (and ONLY if) you had 35-40 entries to compete for the 33 spots.

    To do that, however, will require additional engine suppliers, something the Speedway, Mark Miles, and IndyCar do NOT seem to want. (Spell that “badging” requirements and hefty fees.)

    As I pointed out, there are “T” cars for virtually every entrant, cars which LACK engines, but could (with a motor) become leaseable or saleable “rides” for the 500. If that were to happen, you would not have Michael Shank or Grace Autoworks sitting on the sidelines for the 500.

    It would also require some tinkering with the qualifying format (again,) but we’ve had to do that the last TWO years, last year due to safety issues and this year due to weather.

    Finally, on an unrelated matter, I made the point on your “One Take Only” post that it does the series NO favors when coverage bounces all over the TV dial from WatchESPN to ABC to ESPNNews. (And some of the early qualifiers actually ended up on the IMS video feed.) I know the “House of Mouse” rules, but maybe, just maybe, they should consider letting NBCSN or one of their franchises handle qualifying, or at least the parts of it that ABC doesn’t seem to care about.

    • EDGAR Emmitt Says:

      Excellent post
      TV ,internet on espn3 was a joke for the 100th running and the huge build up.
      Get your act together Indy Car.
      How do you go about building a fan base being jerked around.
      Talk to every driver like NASCAR and get to know these guys.

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