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.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”