The reasons behind the struggles of the big hitters are unknown. Perhaps it was the changing conditions throughout the weekend? Maybe it was the limited practice, with frequent rain interruptions throughout the prior week?
Whatever the case, the big teams all struggled. Only Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Dario Franchitti represent the Ganassi/Penske armada at the front of the field, with Helio Castroneves (16th) and Ryan Briscoe (26th) back in the pack. Even Chip Ganassi’s sister team of Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal have had trouble finding speed, with the young American duo starting 28th (Kimball) and 29th (Rahal).
Andretti Autosport’s well documented problems, with their drivers starting 17th (John Andretti), 25th (Danica Patrick), 27th (Marco Andretti), and 33rd (Ryan Hunter-Reay, in A.J. Foyt’s No. 41 car).
Their troubles have opened the door for the smaller teams and the one-off efforts to grab the headlines…and they have taken full advantage.
The biggest story is obviously that of Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which has three cars in the top nine spots with Alex Tagliani on the pole and Townsend Bell in fourth (Dan Wheldon, whose Bryan Herta Autosport team has a technical partnership with Sam Schmidt, starts sixth). One the most telling facts of the week is that Schmidt has as many cars in the top nine as Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi …combined.
For Tagliani’s No. 77 outfit, which nearly went out of business before Schmidt took over leadership, to be on the pole is phenomenal. Last year, he and the FAZZT team suffered handling issues during the race, dropping them from their fifth starting spot. That knowledge and experience will help them this year and they expect to run up front and show their pole is no fluke. Meanwhile, Bell has transformed himself into a “must have” driver if you’re going to field a one-off entry, having run very well at Indianapolis in each of the last three years.
Joining Tagliani on the front row is Oriol Servia. One of a number of drivers to suffer from the financial side of racing, Servia, after not driving for any team in 2010, is enjoying a successful stint with Newman/Haas Racing in 2011 and currently sits third in the standings. His run to the outside of the front row came as a surprise; even he admitted simply making the Fast Nine was an accomplishment in and of itself for the Chicago-based team. Of course, more may be on the way from them. Newman/Haas has run especially well on the ovals since reunification in 2008 and has the resources to put together a competitive car. Servia, a veteran, is smart and will take care of car. They are expected to be a factor on Race Day.
In qualifying sixth, Dan Wheldon has helped Bryan Herta Autosport become one of the most improved teams this year. After making last year’s field when Paul Tracy and Jay Howard attempted reruns, only to go slower, Herta’s outfit is in this year’s “500” on merit, using technical help from Sam Schmidt and Wheldon’s veteran savvy and skill to rocket up the grid. It may be asking a bit too much to expect a victory out of this bunch, but stranger things have happened. Wheldon’s status as a former winner, along with two runner-up finishes in the last two years, illustrates that he knows his way around Indianapolis. He’s not going to make mistakes. That alone will them a chance on Sunday, and that’s all anyone needs.
Joining Bryan Herta Autosport as one of the most improved teams this year is Sarah Fisher Racing, with driver Ed Carpenter gridding eighth. Fisher’s team has seen steady improvement since its inception in 2008 and now has a chance to provide what could be the best feel good story in the Speedway’s history. Fisher was exiled twice in her driving career and forced to start her own team to stay in the game, while Carpenter is an exceptional oval racer who has been almost exiled due to the increase of racing; to simply make the Top Nine is an accomplishment in its own right, one that was met with a booming ovation from the Pole Day crowd. Their efforts have been exceptional, and they deserve additional for credit for smartly choosing to focus all efforts on Carpenter’s No. 67 rather than also trying the field the No. 57 sister car. As with Herta’s outfit, expecting them to win pushing the limit, but running a mistake-free race should give them shot. Thus far, they’ve proven that’s all they need.
Buddy Rice’s disappearance from Open Wheel Racing has been equally as puzzling as Dan Wheldon’s. A former “500” winner, Rice is also a formidable road racer who “should” have teams clamoring for his services. However, this will be his first INDYCAR race in more than two years.
Of all of the one-off efforts, this one may have best chance. The combination of Rice with Panther Racing, which has finished second at Indianapolis in each of last three years, is a lethal one. If the right breaks fall their way and if Rice and part-time pit crew have the rust shaken off, they’ll be very dangerous. Don’t sleep on them.
Finally, a pair of rookies to keep an eye are James Hinchcliffe and J.R. Hildebrand. With Hinchcliffe a teammate to Oriol Servia at Newman/Haas and Hildebrand a teammate to Buddy Rice at Panther Racing, each has a veteran teammate in their corner. What’s more, each has done the one thing every rookie needs to do: log laps. They are both gaining valuable experience and have not had one misstep this month. If that trend continues, they could find themselves near the front. They both have the equipment to get there; they just need to stay out of trouble.
Of course, we shouldn’t count out the likes of Briscoe, Castroneves, Rahal, and Andretti. All are very talented and have fast cars behind them. Watching them charge through the pack will be a thrill, especially in the opening laps.
In all, the the 95th Indianapolis 500, the 100th anniversary of the great race,, has the makings of a classic, even before the engines have fired on Sunday.