INDIANAPOLIS – Andretti Autosport entered Sunday with four bullets in the gun to fire for pole position ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. All four came up just short, and a fifth had a qualifying speed which would be good enough to start higher, but never had the opportunity.
Nonetheless, Sunday at Indy was still a great day for the Andretti team, even without the glory of pole position.
Before the running on track even got going there was proper drama in the garage, as it was determined to make a precautionary engine change on Fernando Alonso’s No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry after issues found near the end of pre-qualifying practice.
What followed next was a tour de force by the Andretti crew to get the engine changed in just over an hour to ensure Alonso hit the 4:15 p.m. tech line to be out for the Fast Nine shootout.
Alonso promptly laughed off the concern of a pre-qualifying engine change, given his regular ailments with Honda’s Formula 1 engine at McLaren there.
“As soon as we decided to change the engine, I saw like 20 people around my car changing parts. That was a truly good thing to experience today, how the teamwork plays here. I was extremely proud and happy of them,” Alonso said.
On track, the runs started first when the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport entry, rookie Jack Harvey in the No. 50 Honda, had a hairy run. Harvey tattooed the wall exiting Turn 2 but kept his foot in it, and completed his run with a four-lap average of 225.742. He’ll start 27th.
After Harvey, the next Andretti driver to run was Ryan Hunter-Reay, who would have had a shot at the pole purely on speed. In fact, his four-lap average of 231.442 mph was the fourth fastest of the day during Sunday qualifying, with only Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter, and Alexander Rossi eclipsing his No. 28 DHL Honda.
However, struggles during Saturday qualifying meant he wasn’t quick enough to make the Fast Nine shootout (he was 13th fastest on Saturday). As a result, he could do no better than tenth on Sunday qualifying, despite the dramatic increase in speed, and he will start from the inside of the fourth row on May 28.
However, Hunter-Reay has proven he can win from deep in the field. His 2014 triumph came after he started 19th, and he cracked the top ten in the first stint that year.
Hunter-Reay, therefore, is well-versed in working his way through traffic, and is confident he can do the same thing on race day.
“It was a wild ride. Testament to the team that put a good car together; it’s been that way for a good week and one-half. We just had a bad draw in qualifying, going early when the sun was out yesterday compared to a lot of guys who made it into the Fast Nine later in the day with the clouds came out,” he said. “We did our homework on that one. It was close. That was not a nice four laps; it was on edge. Big time, white knuckle, I’m just catching my breath now.”
It then came time for the quartet of Andretti drivers in the Fast Nine. Marco Andretti was unable to break out of eighth place, but it still sets him up decently in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda entry on Sunday.
Next up was Alonso, with the fresh motor. He went out at over 231 mph for his run, and was pleased – but ultimately fell to fifth.
Rossi followed with an even better run, which eclipsed Alonso’s best time. He’ll start third next Sunday as he prepares to defend his shock win of a year ago. While this is the best career start for the driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda in IndyCar – his previous best was fifth at Long Beach earlier this year – it still feels like a slightly missed chance for the native of Nevada City, Calif.
“I’m always disappointed if you’re not in front, but I think it’s a good effort from the team. Seeing Scott’s speed is pretty impressive,” he said. “I know we couldn’t have done that. We’ve got to be content with the front row. It was something that really bothered me last year and for a year actually that we didn’t make the Fast Nine, so yesterday was a pretty big relief, and today was just about trying to go as high up as possible.
“Front row is good. You can win this race from anywhere, so it’s a good place to be, no dirty air, and we’ll just get the race off to a strong start and see where it goes.”
Lastly Takuma Sato, who was second on Saturday, was then second-to-last out on Sunday in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. He nearly hit the wall a couple times on the run but still ended in fourth place, courtesy of his “no attack, no chance” style that sees him with a best Indianapolis 500 starting position to date. His previous best, also achieved with current engineer Garrett Mothershead, came in 2011 with KV Racing Technology when he started 10th.
“We were pushing so hard – Lap 3 and 4 were so on edge and I brushed the wall, but held on. I’m very happy to be in the second row, obviously, the front row would be nicer but this was a great team effort. I am very happy with where we are starting.”
Great qualifying positions are nice to write about but they haven’t even been a complete precursor for Andretti’s four ‘500 wins.
Rossi started 11th last year, Hunter-Reay 19th in 2014, Dario Franchitti 3rd in 2007 and Dan Wheldon 16th in 2005.
With spots of third, fourth, fifth, eighth, 10th and 27th on the grid, Andretti will look for more success next Sunday with its six-pack of drivers – even if a pole evaded them today.
Kyle Lavigne assisted on report of this story