20 May 2010

A Qualifications Primer

Until the 500/600 $20 Million Double occurs (and SI.com's Tim Tuttle nails most of it here), the biggest change to hit the Indianapolis 500 was the overhaul of the schedule for the month of May.  With a schedule closer to that of the 1998 500, teams have been prepping all week for the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 and stand to do their qualifying trim on Thursday.

Saturday will mark the biggest changes to the qualifying format - no, Brian Barnhardt will still talk to the drivers momentarily before the head out for their qualifying effort - with a "
Pole Day Shootout" scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m..

From noon-4, the first 24 slots will be filled, based on speed.  After a half-hour break, the top nine speeds will then have a window in which to attempt to qualify for the pole.

The new format blends a bit of the "Firestone Fast Six" road/street qualifying format that fans have enthusiastically endorsed with the tradition of late-day pole runs at Indianapolis.

Now, whether or not this draws fans back to Pole Day remains to be seen.  While I don't see the massive crowds returning for qualifications until drivers are pushing 240-250 mph, last year's crowd appeared to be up from the previous year.  For the most part, the qualifying was good, albeit too spread out, as Alex Lloyd put together a late run to qualify in the top 11 in his Sam Schmidt/Ganassi car.

With two Ganassi machines (and a third in Townsend Bell's Schmidt/Ganassi effort), at least one quality KV machine (Mario Moraes), three solid Penske cars, two-five Andretti Autosport efforts (Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan have shown the most speed) and a Tagliani (he's been surprisingly quick in practice), some quality drivers are going to be left out, leaving some to scramble around 3:30 to try and make a run into the first three rows of the 500 field.

In any case, it should make for a more interesting Pole Day, with track activity guaranteed far more than in the past.

As for Bump Day, filling the final nine spots in the field should take little time, provided the weather cooperates.  And unlike past years, we won't see Jimmy Kite and P.J. Jones as the only cars attempting to bump their way into the field (now, after experiencing a two-seater ride, I have an immense amount of respect for any of those drivers, especially the ones trying to bump their way in with an ill-handling machine).

Based on the speed charts thus far, it looks like everyone's favorite driver, Milka Duno (hey, she is great with the fans, I'll credit her that), will be squarely on the bubble come Sunday.  And if that happens, keep a close eye on the AJ Foyt Racing garage, where I wouldn't be surprised to see another car prepared if Milka was sitting on the bubble late in the day.

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