Changing strategy necessitates changing plans in Indy 500 qualifying

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INDIANAPOLIS – Inclement weather simplified strategy Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It became a similar strategy to what will be applied in final qualifying today for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil

Marco Andretti feared his four-lap qualifying average of 229.924 mph Saturday might not be quick enough to make today’s Fast Nine Shootout.

“The track’s pretty good for the guys on the end,” Andretti said after slotting himself seventh in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Andretti Autosport Honda.

Rain had pushed back qualifying about five hours, which meant track conditions were cooler and more ideal in the early evening. And the adjusted schedule meant each driver would get only one opportunity to solidify a spot.

By the time the final qualifying attempt began, Andretti had dropped to ninth, on the bubble for being pushed out of the Fast Nine Shootout that will determine the Verizon P1 Award pole winner late this afternoon. Fortunately for Andretti, Gabby Chaves wasn’t quick enough.

So, Andretti joins Ed Carpenter, Scott Dixon, JR Hildebrand, Will Power, Tony Kanaan and Andretti Autosport teammates Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi and Fernando Alonso in the nail-biting, once-through-the-line, one-try-only Fast Nine session set for 5 p.m. ET. (Qualifying coverage today airs on WatchESPN from 2:30-4 p.m. and ABC from 4-6.

Those who didn’t reach the fast nine will re-qualify to establish race starting positions 10 through 33 from 2:45-4:45 today. Drivers are very mindful of the impact on Verizon IndyCar Series championship points — the pole winner earns 42 points, nearly as much for winning any race but the double-points Indy 500 and season finale at Sonoma Raceway. Indy qualifying points decrease to just one for the 33rd qualifier.

A familiar face who emerged as a pole favorite surprised himself. Two-time Indy 500 pole sitter Ed Carpenter didn’t anticipate his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka ECR Chevrolet would post the fastest average Saturday at 230.468 mph.

“It kind of feels like 2013 right now,” Carpenter said, referring to his first Indy 500 pole, “because I wasn’t expecting that.”

Before Friday evening’s qualifying draw, Carpenter asked son Ryder to draw the No. 6. The boy drew No. 60.

“I was like: ‘You were close. You got the first number right,’” Carpenter said at the time.

Ryder’s pick proved to be key because it allowed his dad to qualify later, in cooler, cloudy conditions.

“As today turned out, I think he drew us a favorable number,” Carpenter said. “The track temps were coming down. It was pretty ideal for us.”

Dixon won the 2008 Indy 500 from the pole and, like Carpenter, has been the top qualifier twice for this race. His No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda ranked third Saturday, but four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dixon expressed admiration for Carpenter.

“Ed is fantastic around this place,” Dixon said.

Carpenter’s teammate, Hildebrand, was also impressive in fourth with a speed of 230.205 mph in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Service ECR Chevrolet. His run pushed Dale Coyne Racing rookie Ed Jones to 10th. Combined with a crash that hospitalized Coyne teammate Sebastien Bourdais, it was a humbling day for Jones.

“The conditions obviously changed at the end,” Jones said. “The track got better. That’s frustrating.”

Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion, reminded he’s far more experienced than the normal rookie with a four-lap speed average of 230.034 mph.

“It was a useful run today, useful lessons,” Alonso said. “So (today), I will try to do better and find more speed.”

Zach Veach, unable to make a qualifying attempt Saturday after crashing his No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet during Friday’s practice, will be allowed to make an attempt in Group 1 qualifying today to determine the 10th through 33rd starting positions.

No determination has been made on the fate of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda following Bourdais’ crash that left the four-time champion with fractures in his pelvis and right hip. A substitute driver could be named today.

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