INDIANAPOLIS -- Pole sitter James Hinchcliffe proclaimed the three fastest qualifiers “a fun front row” for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Three cars from different teams, separated by a scant 0.0758 of a second over a 10-mile qualifying distance, two Honda engines and one Chevrolet, a Canadian and two Americans, a driver who has never been on a Verizon IndyCar Series pole, a runner-up who has never started second at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a 2014 Indy 500 champion who is a former teammate and good buddies with the fastest qualifier.
There’s no denying the race has one of its more popular pole winners in Hinchcliffe, a 29-year-old Canadian whose well-told story of resilience and determination starts with overcoming life-threatening injuries in an Indy 500 practice crash six days before last year’s race.
“We’ve got the best seat in the house for the biggest race in history,” Hinchcliffe said Sunday after the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driver won his first pole in what will be his 79th career starts.
“Hinch” edged Josef Newgarden’s No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet from Ed Carpenter Racing by 0.0407 of a second. Newgarden, a 25-year-old Tennessean, has won two series races, earned one pole and will be starting second for the sixth time in his series career, but hadn’t qualified better than seventh in four previous “500” starts.
“You’re not going to win the thing in the first corner, and that’s never been more true with this car, being able to pass in every straightaway,” Newgarden said. “You’re not going to see anything silly at the start.”
Next to them on the outside of the front row is Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, who celebrated a career accomplishment with his Indy 500 victory two years ago and equaled his best previous qualifying effort Sunday in his No. 28 DHL Honda. The only other time in nine Indy 500 starts that he qualified as well was when he started third in 2012. The driver next to him that race was Hinchcliffe. They were Andretti teammates from 2012-14.
Hinchcliffe also started second in the 2014 Indy 500 that Hunter-Reay won. Never far from offering a humbling reality check, Hunter-Reay reminded that the past five Indy 500 winners came from beyond the front row.
“Hopefully we’re going to break that streak this time,” Hunter-Reay said.
The 35-year-old Floridian and 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion acknowledged how much rides on the Indy 500 each year.
“The emotions are all so drastic here,” he said. “That’s what I love about this place. There’s so much invested emotionally, physically, financially in this whole effort.”
Newgarden’s boss, Carpenter, is no stranger to starting up front at Indy as a pole sitter in 2013 and ‘14. Carpenter is a hometown fan favorite whose best chance of winning this race was 2014, when Hinchcliffe crashed him out in Turn 1.
Carpenter, who will start 20th, shared the advice he will give Newgarden.
“It’s easy being on the pole because you really get to choose when you go,” Carpenter said. “You really get to dictate the pace. Josef has to be respectful of Hinch earning the pole, without a doubt, because he earned that right. You can’t just jump him. At the end of the day, you just want to get a good clean start.
“To me, I think you’re better off falling behind Hinch, staying in second, being able to save some fuel and let him run in clean air and tow the pack around. A lot of it is going to depend on what the weather is like. If it’s really hot and slick, you might want to try a little harder to get clean air and get some separation.”
The fastest cars couldn’t be closer together. The slowest of the nine shootout qualifiers was three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske at just 1.1202 seconds behind Hinchcliffe over four laps.
Hinchcliffe’s best Indianapolis 500 finish in four starts was sixth in 2012. Newgarden’s best finish in four starts was ninth last year. Aside from his win, Hunter-Reay has finished third in 2013 at Indy and sixth in his rookie year in 2008.
Hunter-Reay laughed when asked what advice he would give Newgarden.
“He doesn’t need any advice, trust me,” Hunter-Reay said. “He’s been fast all week.”
Hunter-Reay eventually had some fun in obliging the advice request.
“I would say take it easy pretty much the whole race,” Hunter-Reay said, looking at Newgarden.
That required a response.
“I’m going to go home, get a glass of milk and watch all of Ryan’s previous races and study his strategies, see what I can do to be like Ryan on Sunday,” Newgarden said.