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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bad Luck, Drama Lead To Enthralling Indy Qualifying Weekend

The 33-car field for this year's Indianapolis 500 has been set, and both Pole Day and Bump Day provided the fans with plenty of drama. One former open-wheel champion missed the field, while another barely made it.

Neither of those two, however, were three-time race winner Helio Castroneves. He took the provisional pole on Saturday, dueling with Team Penske teammate Will Power for the top starting spot. Dario Franchitti of Chip Ganassi Racing will start third, completing the first row. All five Penske and Ganassi cars, of course, made the nine-car pole shootout at the end of Pole Day.

The other four to fill out the shootout field, though, were a bit surprising. Alex Tagliani continued his fantastic streak of qualifying for FAZZT Race Team, placing fifth. He'll start in the middle of the second row, between fourth place Ryan Briscoe and sixth place Scott Dixon. The third row contains three shockers, as Graham Rahal, Ed Carpenter, and Hideki Mutoh all turned flying four-lap runs to make it in. Rahal and Carpenter do not have secure futures past next weekend's race, as they are Indy-only programs for Rahal Letterman Racing and Panther Racing, respectively.

The fourth row will be comprised of Townsend Bell, making his season debut; Justin Wilson, who led the four Dreyer & Reinbold Racing cars, all of which qualified on Saturday; and Raphael Matos, who had an outside shot at Indy glory next year. Matos' de Ferran Dragon Motorsports teammate, Davey Hamilton, will start in the middle of the fifth row, between Mario Moraes and Mike Conway. Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Dan Wheldon, all current or former Andretti Autosport drivers, make up the sixth row.

E.J. Viso bounced back from a crash earlier in the week to qualify 19th, in front of Dreyer & Reinbold teammates Tomas Scheckter and Ana Beatriz. Ranking 21st, Beatriz is the highest-starting rookie in the race, as well as the top female. In the latter category, however, Simona de Silvestro and Danica Patrick both qualified immediately behind her. Bertrand Baguette completed the eighth row as the last driver to qualify for the race.

Patrick was widely booed and criticized after her Saturday qualifying run for calling her No. 7 Dallara-Honda "the worst car (she's) ever had." Patrick currently sits 16th in IZOD IndyCar Series points, after five subpar runs to start the season and three poor stock car starts. She's fallen a long way after a fifth-place run in the championship last year that was buoyed by only one DNF.

Among the crashes on Saturday were Takuma Sato in the morning practice session, and Tony Kanaan during his qualifying run. Paul Tracy, Sarah Fisher, and Vitor Meira were among the other big names not to qualify on Pole Day.

Kanaan's weekend had some excess drama on Sunday morning, as he crashed another car in early morning practice. The final nine starting spots were filled early in the day, with Bruno Junqueira, Tagliani's FAZZT teammate, turning a run that would have put him in Saturday's pole shootout. Jay Howard bumped out Sato to hold 31st for much of the day, putting Sebastien Saavedra on the bubble. At 4:00, Kanaan, Sato, Milka Duno, and Jaques Lazier were the four drivers out of the field.

Lazier, to his credit, did a remarkable job for a driver that did not know he would be driving until Sunday morning; A.J. Foyt IV left his grandfather's team after comments critical of the car, and the longtime IndyCar competitor was called down to take over. He turned a 225 mile per hour lap earlier in the day, but aborted his first qualifying run after falling way off Saavedra's pace.

Meanwhile, Kanaan had been desperately seeking stability in his car all weekend. Both accidents during qualifying weekend came after the car snapped around exiting turn one, and during post-qualifying practice he nearly snapped the car around again. Kanaan knew Sunday night that he would not start in the top 10 for the first time since 2002; for much of Sunday, he did not know if he would start at all.

Kanaan received a break when Saavedra crashed in practice just before 5:00, but his laps before that accident weren't even close to Saavedra's four lap average. He and Sato put their cars in the field, while Mario Romancini moved up to 27th by the end of the day.

Paul Tracy and Jay Howard were the unfortunate victims of the two larger teams putting their marquee drivers in the field; both withdrew and attempted to re-qualify, leaving Saavedra on the bubble when he would have been ou of the race. Howard's run at the 6 pm gun, however, was too slow, and Tracy, the 2003 Champ Car champion and 2002 race runner-up, was left waiting in line. Duno and Lazier were also unable to turn qualifying runs fast enough to make the event.

The 33 drivers will now embark on a whirlwind media tour before Sunday's 500-mile race.

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