INDIANAPOLIS - It was a somewhat dull Pole Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yesterday, but Scott Sharp couldn't have been more on edge.
He wasn't sure who would sever him from the pole over the next six hours after he established a top speed of 226.037 miles per hour at about noon.
He knew someone would probably push him to second or maybe even third with a lot of the hot-shoes cooling their heels until the late afternoon shade made the track a shade faster.
There were a lot of mind games going on between Greg Ray, the pole favorite; Robby Gordon, driving for A.J. Foyt, the wily veteran who knows every trick of the trade both inside and outside the engine compartment; and even Mark Dismore, Sharp's Kelly Racing teammate.
But all of the late bonzai runs lacked one thing, enough speed to overcome Sharp, whose best start in six previous Indy 500s was fifth last year when he finished the race a career-high 10th.
Sharp said he was sitting on piercing pins and needles all afternoon waiting for the inevitable.
“It was pretty nerve-racking, I'll be honest,” he said. “I looked at my watch hoping it was 3 and it was only 1:30 and I realized it was going to be a long afternoon. Robby had a good first lap, Greg had a good first lap and Jeff Ward had a good first lap, but luckily for me they didn't put four good ones to-gether.”
Gordon went out first among the late-day lead-foots and popped an initial lap of 225.990 mph. That grabbed everyone's attention, but his speeds dropped each successive lap. Ward's first lap was 225.751, but his speeds tumbled, too.
Ray took himself out of the pole equation on his first lap at 225.227, but got faster the next two laps and finished with a four-lap average of 225.194 mph. That placed him in the middle of the front row. He won the pole last year and hasn't started worse than second in the past four Indy 500s.
“That is all we could get out of it,” Ray said. “The whole day has been stressful, stressful, stressful. I don't know where Sharp pulled that rabbit out of his hat, but I have to tip my hat to them. When I saw Scott do it, I thought: `Oh, no. It's going to be a long day at the office.'”
Gordon will start on the outside of the first row. Dismore, rookie Gil de Ferran and veteran Arie Luyendyk will comprise the second row.
A total of 27 drivers qualified yesterday. It was the fourth-highest total in Indy 500 history for a Pole Day.
Sam Hornish of Defiance qualified 13th-quickest with a four-lap average speed of 223.333 mph and will start on the inside of the fifth row.
“It was easier getting into the first 500 than the second,” said the 21-year old Hornish, who won the first two IRL races this season and is the current points leader. “It's harder because you are expected to do it. After five days we found the right combination.”
Hornish, who started 14th and finished 24th last year as a rookie after getting caught up in an accident, out-qualified his more celebrated teammate, Michael Andretti.
Andretti posted the 24th-fastest speed yesterday and has been slower than Hornish during most practice sessions.
“I think we got in the field safely, and we're ready for the race,” a somewhat dejected Andretti said. “The race is why we're all here anyway. I'm older, but a little bit wiser and I hope that experience will help me in the race.”
There will be an Andretti and an Unser in the field for the first time since 1994. Al Unser Jr. failed to make the race in 1995, driving for Roger Penske. Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George then formed the Indy Racing League, forcing CART teams to go their own way in 1996.
Unser qualified on the inside of the seventh row.
Buddy Lazier, driving for Toledo businessman Ron Hemelgarn, qualified 10th.
“For the team to focus on us being the baddest cats in town on race day, I'm happy to be in the position I'm in,” said Lazier, the defending IRL series champion and 1996 Indy 500 winner.
With his two drivers, Tony Stewart and Jimmy Vasser, firmly entrenched, team owner Chip Ganassi announced yesterday that he will attempt to qualify his two backup cars today. Rookies Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, bumped from their rides for this race by Stewart and Vasser, will get a second chance.