Who has speed for qualifying and who needs it after Fast Friday

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INDIANAPOLIS – The world’s most famous racetrack always has rewarded a sublime mix of bravery, experience and skill.

But this week’s IndyCar practice sessions have been a good reminder that sometimes even having all three in abundance still isn’t enough to tame Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Just ask Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner of the Indianapolis 500 and 2012 NTT IndyCar Series champion who had a major wiggle Friday before he managed to save his No. 28 Dallara-Honda from becoming the latest victim claimed during a particularly treacherous four-day stretch on the intimidating 2.5-mile oval.

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“I’ve got to go change my underwear real quick,” Hunter-Reay told NBCSN’s Marty Snider during the “Fast Friday” practice session. “That was close to writing the car off, no doubt. Yeah, I got away with one there.”

“You just have to put it aside and trust it’s not going to happen again,” he said. “You’ve got to have faith.”

There will 36 IndyCar drivers trying to put aside some uneasy feelings and bad memories to claim one of 33 spots in the 103rd Running of the Indy 500 while ignoring a rather daunting question.

After four consecutive days of harrowing moments and violent crashes (and two cars briefly getting airborne), how much hairier will it be while pushing the limits at 230 mph for four consecutive laps Saturday and Sunday?

“We’re going to earn our money,” Marco Andretti said after ranking second Friday with a 230.851 mph lap.

PRACTICE REPORT: Conor Daly atop the speed chart

The No. 25 Honda of his Andretti Autosport teammate Conor Daly topped the speed chart Friday, followed by the Honda of 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato. The top Chevrolet was Spencer Pigot (230.755) in fourth, but it’s expected that Chevys will have an advantage in qualifying.

“Certainly interesting to see what’s going to happen,” said Daly, who also will have the advantage of making the first attempt when qualifying begins at 11 a.m. Saturday (presumably under cooler conditions). “Everyone is closer than we expected, manufacturer-wise. There are some little differences there for sure, but the Honda guys are working super hard step by step make it go as fast as possible.”

In the search for speed, rookies and inexperienced drivers predictably have suffered the most this week.

First-timers Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward both cracked the wall after tempting fate by running low lines around the Brickyard.

Kyle Kaiser and Fernando Alonso, both of whom are making their second Indy 500 starts, also crashed and put their teams behind. Juncos Racing is scrambling to have a backup ready for Kaiser to qualify Saturday, while McLaren Racing lost Thursday’s practice before putting Alonso back on track Friday for the 24th-fastest speed (229.328).

But there have been several veterans – namely Hunter-Reay — who also have seemed spooked by one of racing’s most treacherous tracks, particularly with Friday’s boost of 50 horsepower.

Sage Karam, who aims to make his sixth start in the Indy 500, was flummoxed by the performance of his No. 24 Dallara-Chevrolet.

“This definitely is the most difficult year for difficulty in traffic,” the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver said. “It’s really hard to drive. It’s 100 percent grip one second, and boom, it goes away. It’s just not consistent. It’s a really tricky car this year.

“My main concern is getting in the show. I’ve got to figure something out.”

Karam was 32nd on the list of non-tow speeds, which can be the most indicative of the single-car conditions of qualifying (which is unaffected by drafting and traffic).

Among the others who could be in trouble are Rosenqvist (26th) and Alonso, who is 30th. The two-time Formula One champion admitted he had concerns about qualifying after making 77 laps Friday.

“It’s the same for everybody,” he said. “Surprises can happen. Hopefully tomorrow we are a good surprise.”

The two-fastest non-tow laps were turned by the Chevys of teammates Ed Jones and Ed Carpenter, whose Ed Carpenter Racing car has won the Indy 500 pole in three of the past six seasons.

Alexander Rossi (who finished fourth in last year’s Indy 500 after qualifying a disappointing 32nd) was third fastest on the non-tow speed chart, and the No. 27 Honda driver is expecting that temperature fluctuations over the weekend will have major impacts on speed.

“I think it’s the most weather-sensitive track we go to just because the margins are so small, and everything is already kind of on such a knife edge,” Rossi told Snider on the NBC Sports Gold broadcast. “You have 5 degrees of track temperature, and it makes a difference on the car.

“Just trying to have a full arsenal of stuff because we know how important qualifying is going to be.”

Many drivers were anxious about the qualifying draw that was conducted early Friday evening. Though there are unlimited attempts at qualifying, those making their first attempts in late morning and early afternoon are likely to have much conditions conducive to faster speeds.

“When you will do the run is going to be a big factor if it’s a hot day,” Alonso said. “So yeah, if we are in the wrong moment of the day, which it seems that the luck will put us in that moment this week … ”

Rosenqvist also will be seeking to change his fortunes. The Indy 500 would mark the first career oval race for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who admitted Friday he is adapting to the mental challenge of navigating Indy.

“It is a very tricky place,” Rosenqvist said “It can just bite you really hard, no matter how slowly you go through it, the limit is the limit. It’s a tricky place.

“Almost like the length of the whole thing makes it even harder because if you feel comfortable, maybe you tend to just stop there and not continue to work. If you don’t feel good, you know there’s a panic to get quicker. … It’s probably more mental than anything else I’ve done or any other race I’ve done.”

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry.

The idea of Hamilton attending the season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it only would be fitting if Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — spent some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).