It is crunch time at Indianapolis, the day before the field will be set for the 92nd running of the 500. While most of the field is focusing on race setups and trimming their Dallaras (all but one car in the field) to spec, others are sweating bullets on qualifying for the race.
With 37 confirmed car/driver combinations, the concept of bumping will not just be a slogan this year: there is a very good chance a few cars will be going home.
Fastest today, as usual during this month of May, was polesitter Scott Dixon, turning a lap at 223.713 mph. Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were next up, followed by Will Power and Graham Rahal. The young but mature Rahal ran his quickest lap in the later stages of the day, around 5:30 or so local time.
But it wasn't an incident-free day by any means. Rookies Power and E.J. Viso each crashed, the former through turn one and the latter wiping out in the middle of turn three. Both drivers were fine but felt awful for their teams in having to perform extra work to get their cars ready to qualify.
"There was a lot of blustery wind out there and I just got caught out. I wasn't even up to speed yet and the car came around on me sending me into the wall," Power said after his accident. "This is obviously a setback because of the track time we are going to lose, but I know the team will do what needs to be done and we will be ready to qualify tomorrow."
Viso's diagnosis of his accident was more succinct. "I'm fine and ready to go again, but I feel bad for the team," the Venezuelan said. "It was our first run real heavy on fuel. My line was okay, but I lost the rear in turn three."
The biggest shunt of the day, however, belonged to Briscoe, who lost it in turn one around 3:00 and destroyed his T-car. Like the others, Briscoe suffered no physical injuries but one has to wonder how much a shunt does for his psyche. At least he's qualified in the third position whereas the other two will be trying to get in tomorrow.
Surveying the paddock, opinions varied about what was a necessary speed for success in qualifying without compromising the race setup too much. "We're still searching for speed," said Beck Motorsports' Roger Yasukawa. "In race trim we'd like to run 219-220 (mph) and without a doubt we could hit 221-222 if we trimmed it out (for qualifying). It's always tough without teammates to find data."
"We're fine and both cars are ready to go," Ryan Hunter-Reay of Rahal Letterman Racing noted. "We haven't been out yet today though, and on our own we want to run 218."
"It's hard to say what to expect," Jeff Simmons of A.J. Foyt's team quipped, after running in the 220-mph range on his own. "I'd like to hit 222 but it is difficult to say."
Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing teammates Rahal and Justin Wilson felt confident about their cars. Rahal is definitely solid as he nearly made it in on the first weekend and has been quick during the limited on-track time this week, although he had a near accident towards the end of practice.
Not as satisfied was Alex Lloyd, back on track in the freshly-livered Wii Fit car for the joint Rahal Letterman/Chip Ganassi effort, and Ed Carpenter of Vision Racing. Both drivers noted some nagging handling issues that had seen their speeds drop since the beginning of the month.
Meanwhile there is but one Panoz entered for this year's edition of the 500 and it is in the capable hands of Phil Giebler at American Dream Motorsports. While Giebler's IndyCar experience is limited to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he also ran last year, the incredibly versatile driver has an uncanny ability to hop into almost anything at short notice and get it up to speed. The team is sorting out the car fielded last year by Chastain Motorsports, and formerly owned by Rahal Letterman. Track time has been sorely lacking and he was the only driver not to get on track today.
As always there was those couple of drivers walking around the paddock in search of that elusive seat for this year's race. Alex Barron and Roberto Moreno, who were both in last year's 500, remain outsiders as the number of drivers here at the Speedway far outnumbers the amount of cars. Moreno at least gave the impression he enjoyed relaxing for a change as opposed to the pressures of hunting down a car.