Andretti Autosport cars put themselves in Indy 500 pole conversation

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Here came the Hondas on “Fast Friday,” especially Michael Andretti’s cars.

Don’t put too much stock in the latest daily speed chart from 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil practice, which listed Team Penske’s Will Power and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden 1-2 with Chevrolet engines.

The real story was the no-tow list – what cars are running alone without drafting off others. That’s typically a clearer indication of what to expect come qualifying weekend. Engines received an approximate 30-horsepower boost for the weekend beginning Friday thanks to INDYCAR regulations that increased engine turbocharger levels by 10 kilopascals to 140, and Andretti entries claimed four of the top five spots.

Townsend Bell, a nine-time Indy 500 starter hired just for this race, was No. 1 on the no-tow list at 231.342 mph in the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda. Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) was second at 231.309, then came three more Andretti entries: 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) at 231.284, Marco Andretti (No. 27 Snapple Honda) at 231.255 and Carlos Munoz (No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda) at 231.187.

“Yeah, I think we’re in there,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “The goal is to get five cars in the top nine (in qualifying today) and see what we can do on Sunday.”

The field was so tightly bunched, Newgarden was stunned at how quickly the no-tow list changed during the final hour of Friday’s practice.

“I was fourth with 30 minutes to go and I dropped to ninth,” the driver of the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet said. “You’d better get it right (today). That’s what it tells me.”

After a scheduled two-hour practice this morning, qualifying commences at 11 a.m. ET to determine the Fast Nine Shootout competitors, who then decide the pole late Sunday afternoon. Bell reminded everything could change this weekend based on weather.

“(Today) will be tough,” said the 41-year-old Californian. “The wind should be blowing a little harder and the cars are a little more wind-sensitive this year. It’s going to be fun. You’re going to have to earn it.”

Prior to Monday’s opening practice on the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Chevrolets had dominated, not just this Verizon IndyCar Series season with all five poles and race wins but in past years. Honda hasn’t been on the pole for an Indianapolis 500 since 2011, when it powered all 33 cars.

Last year, seven of the top nine Indy 500 qualifiers including the pole sitter had Chevys. In five races this season, Honda engines have managed just three of the 15 podium spots.

When Andretti cars went fast during the week, some thought the laps were the result of tows and others accused Chevrolet drivers of “sandbagging.” The team has struggled mightily in 2016 with only one podium, when Hunter-Reay placed third in the opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

“Honda did a tremendous job with this motor, getting the power we needed to be where we are,” Michael Andretti said. “Hats off to Honda.”

It would appear his team sent a message to the rest of Gasoline Alley, although the obvious question is how much Roger Penske’s cars will factor into the equation. He’s won the Indy 500 pole 17 times.

“Who knows what they have in store for (today),” Andretti said.

Qualifying can be as much about nerves as how a car handles. It’s the fastest these cars will run this month – the turbocharge boost is taken back after qualifying ends Sunday.

“It will be highly contested throughout the field,” Bell said. “To make the fast nine, it’s going to be a battle. To be in the top 20, it’s going to be a battle. You go through the field, there’s a big cluster of drivers.

“In the past, maybe it looked a little more blocked in terms of the obvious candidates. It certainly seems more competitive this year.”

Munoz, the 2013 Indy 500 runner-up as a rookie who has been in the top four each day on the overall speed chart this week, conceded a noticeable difference in engine power from a year ago.

“We’re looking much better than last year,” said the 24-year-old Colombian. “We didn’t have a lot of hope. We’re much stronger.

“I don’t want to speak too early because the most important thing is the race, but we’re just focusing on our side, just to make the car good. We don’t care about the other cars’ speeds. We’ll see what we’ve got (today).”

Newgarden expects fierce competition between the two engines.

“You’re going to see a mixed bag between Hondas and Chevys,” he said. “They’re going to be tough to beat. The Andretti cars have been fast all week. They looked fast (Friday). Townsend has been quick all week. It looks like he’s got the quickest car in the Andretti stable.”

But, again, anything can happen in qualifying.

“You’re kind of walking a tightrope, man,” Bell said. “The walk is always maybe a little different. You’ve got to adjust quickly with your hands and your line based on what you feel, then settle in and try to make the most of it. It’s the unpredictability of the first four corners of the first lap. That’s the most telling.”

When suggested nobody really has a sense for what could happen this weekend, Bell smiled and said, “I don’t either.”

Qualifying is scheduled to run from 11 a.m.-5:50 p.m. ET, weather permitting. A qualifying run consists of four consecutive timed laps around the oval. At the end of the day, the cars with the top nine qualification times posted advance to Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout (5-5:45 p.m.). The remaining qualifiers from today move on to Group 1 qualifying Sunday (2:45-4:45 p.m.), when race starting positions 10-33 are decided.

Qualifying can be viewed today on ESPN3 (11 a.m.-3 p.m.), RaceControl.IndyCar.com (3-4 p.m.) and ABC (4-6 p.m.). Sunday qualifying is available on ESPN3 (2:30-4 p.m.) and ABC (4-6 p.m.)

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