On Saturday, May 17, thirty three racers held their breath as they sped around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during day one of qualifying for the ninety-eighth running of the 500 mile event. For the first time, the competitors had to adjust to a new procedure, and competed for the honor of running in the first three rows, as well as setting the running order for day two of the grueling qualification.
Josef Newgarden took advantage of the new Indianapolis 500 qualifying format to secure a Fast Nine Shootout position when the clock ticked down to zero Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR) driver waited in "Line 2" in pit lane to make his third qualifying attempt of the day - the safer option, where cars that have already qualified, yet want another attempt can re-qualify without withdrawing their previous attempt. With 10 minutes remaining in the six-hour session, SFHR team owner Wink Hartman decided to take a risk -- and the end result was more than worth the gamble.
"We would not have made it into the Fast 9 if it wasn't for Wink Hartman because he's the guy who made the call to go into the fast line (Line 1)," Newgarden said. "If we wouldn't have done that, we wouldn't have had a shot to make that third run. Line 1 is a risk because you're forfeiting your time, and you go to the bottom of the charts, and hope you can do better. It was a brilliant call by Wink, and now we're in the Fast Nine Shootout tomorrow."
Newgarden's third and final four-lap qualifying average speed was 230.033 mph, eighth fastest of the day.
"Everyone was scrambling for six hours today, and it was non-stop adrenaline trying to find the most speed," Newgarden said. "Getting a Fast Nine spot is exactly where we want to be, but we need to find even more speed for tomorrow."
SFHR's second driver for "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," Alex Tagliani, made only one qualifying attempt at 227.813 mph. Tagliani hoped to make a second attempt near the end of the day, but the clock ran out before his No. 68 Dallara/Honda/Firestone car made it to the front of Line 2.
"I'm really happy for the team that they made it into the top nine with Josef," Tagliani said. "That's very important for the championship. I think the team has a good chance to steal the show tomorrow with the 67 car, and I will be pulling and supporting them.
Tagliani finished the day 31st fastest and will re-qualify in Group 3 on Sunday, May 18, which includes positions 31-33 in the field.
A bonus to the day for SFHR was the 26 championship points earned by Newgarden's No. 67 Dallara/Honda/Firestone car.
"The big thing about this new qualifying format is the points," Newgarden said. "For anyone running the full championship, this is like a race, and you need to do well because it's huge points."
Newgarden ended the day with a smile, giving full credit to his support system.
"SFHR is incredible; they really are," he said. "This is my third full season with the team, and there's a lot happening within the group that's continuously evolving, and it's crazy what can develop over three years. We are building a backbone right now, and it's great to be a part of it."
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Simon Pagenaud persevered through what he called the most stressful day of his racing career to earn his spot in the Fast Nine. The four-lap average speed of 230.070 mph in his third attempt in the No. 77 Lucas Oil Dallara/Honda/Firestone car was seventh fastest overall.
"I've got to tell you, I think IndyCar's got it right for the nerve-wracking intensity we experienced today!" Pagenaud said. "It was a very entertaining qualifying day, especially for the fans. We got a 230-mph average early on in the day, so waiting it out to see if it would hold up was difficult."
With very little practice time available before qualifications due to rain, Pagenaud said his team used his first two qualification runs to find more speed in his car.
"It felt like I was out there driving all day with my three qualification attempts," he said. "The speed we found today is going to help us immensely tomorrow when we run for the pole. It's honestly another dream come true to have a chance at the Indianapolis 500 pole, and I'll certainly give it my best tomorrow."
Rookie Mikhail Aleshin qualified 16th in the No. 7 SMP Racing Dallara/Honda/Firestone car. He completed two qualifying attempts, and his best four-lap average was 229.091 mph.
"I don't think we realized our full potential today," Aleshin said. "The biggest reason for that is that the rain prevented us from trying a qualifying setup before today. We've been working with different variables in the car, but only got two qualifying runs before time ran out. I think if we'd have gone out a third time, we would have improved our time. We're in a good place for tomorrow, though."
Jacques Villeneuve qualified 27th in the No. 5 Dollar General Dallara/Honda/Firestone car. His first of two qualifying attempts was his fastest, with a four-lap average speed of 228.171 mph.
"We had a run at the end of the day where we trimmed the car out, but we went slower than before," Villeneuve said. "That was frustrating because we just weren't accelerating like we should have. We were using that run as a test for tomorrow, so we have a few things to figure out before tomorrow."