Bump day drama at Indianapolis Motor Speedway erupted right on cue on Sunday with shuffling aplenty of the last three rows of eleven cars. The actors on this day were Bruno Junqueira, John Andretti, former Indy 500 champ Buddy Lazier, Alex Tagliani and Ryan Hunter-Reay. When the music ended it was Tagliani left standing, staring from his seat in an immobile race car in the qualifying line with disbelief. *[See Editor's note on late breaking news]*
Tagliani started the final afternoon of qualifying for the May 24th Indianapolis 500 in position 26 and relatively assured of a spot in the field with a four-lap average qualifying speed of 220.553 mph from Saturday. But he was knocked off the program for Memorial Day's classic auto race by Hunter-Reay on Sunday evening as time expired.
Hunter-Reay, driving for the owner of the Speedway Tony George and wife Laura George's Vision Racing Team, had only time to put on his helmet and charge into the shadows seconds before the 6 PM EDT cutoff time after he was bumped out by Andretti. Hunter-Reay's average speed for the four laps that ensued to put him at 220.597 mph, good enough to break into the race field by a mere four hundredths of a second faster than Tagliani.
The fireworks began earlier when Bruno Junqueira nudged Andretti off the inside of the last row to put Hunter-Reay on the bubble. Hunter-Reay's team pulled the second-year driver's qualifying time from Saturday, good for outside position on the tenth row, in order to re-qualify at a better speed. The result was a mark of 220.433 mph that put Hunter-Reay dead last on the grid.
Milka Duno with rookies Mike Conway and Nelson Philippe re-qualified before Junqueira took to the track, and even though they failed to improve their positions on the grid, both held onto speeds in excess of both Hunter-Reay and EJ Viso. Viso subsequently withdrew his time from Saturday and re-qualified at a faster speed, but in the same middle tenth row spot he held before.
Lazier, who won the race in 1996, struggled mightily to find the speed that might burst Tomas Scheckter's 220.212 mph average qualifying lap but failed to come even close. His best single lap of 220.255 mph in open practice over the 2.5 mile oval clearly wasn't going to be enough for a successful ten-mile sprint into the 33-car field.
Things got interesting at 5:40 EDT (with twenty minutes left) when Scheckter, though on the bubble but seemingly set in the field, withdrew his average of 220.212 mph from Saturday to leap ahead of several Sunday qualifiers with a new four-lap qualifying speed of 221.496 mph.
Andretti made two late attempts to qualify, but failed to hurdle Hunter-Reay on the first for the final starting position in the field. His second try proved a winner, though, and good enough at 221.316 mph to lift him to the middle of the tenth row in the twenty-ninth spot on the grid.
Lazier took to the track one final time, as did rookie Stanton Barrett, but neither could bring their IndyCars up to a competitive speed.
Team Penske continued to look strong in open practice, with Ryan Briscoe turning the fastest lap of the day at 223.338 mph. Scott Dixon (222.940 mph) and Mario Moraes (222.936 mph) were next, followed by Dario Franchitti (222.861 mph) and Tony Kanaan (220.759 mph). Townsend Bell, Helio Castroneves and Will Power also joined the "222" club, as did Conway.
11:35pm EDT: Late breaking news out of the Conquest Racing camp: The No. 36 entry will now belong to Alex Tagliani instead of Bruno Junqueira. The move will allow the team's primary driver back on the Indy 500 grid.
"We had the chance to qualify two excellent drivers today. Unfortunately we didn't have the same fate for both entries despite excellent work from everyone on the team," said team owner Eric Bachelart. "Bruno has once again shown the world how talented a driver he is and we truly appreciate the work he has done for us in this short amount of time and thank him for his excellent work. Alex didn't make the show and it wasn't for a lack of speed or a fault of his own. He simply fell victim to exceptional circumstances.
"That's how the magic of Indy works sometimes; it can be good or bad. We've been working with Alex for a long time now and have built our commercial and marketing program around him. 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 as we continue to build our future together."