Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Pole poker: they re all trying to pull a fast one

INDIANAPOLIS - When the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 is at stake, everybody comes to the table wearing a poker face. For two weeks the drivers practice, all the while playing a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek at 200 miles an hour.

The strategy is to put your car in its best shape for today s pole qualifying, without actually showing the rest of the field everything you ve got. Everybody wants to be holding a trump card, but never tip his or her hand, because today they ll run the most important four laps of their lives.

“We ve been getting a little more out of the car every day,” said Sarah Fisher, one of just four drivers who got in practice laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yesterday before heavy rains wiped out the rest of the schedule. “You just keep working at it, always trying to get another mile an hour here and there, and making sure there is still some more left for qualifying.”

Fisher, who ran a lap at 212.616 mph yesterday, said the sophisticated chess game the racing teams are engaging in leading up to the start of qualifying for the May 30 race continues, despite the intervention of inclement weather.

“Having the rain come into play, it disappoints me, but we re dealing with it the best we can and trying to re-strategize and work on a different game plan. I m looking forward to the 500 and to the qualifying, because I have the confidence to know how much aggression to have up front, when to hold it back, and when to present it. That s what we have to do.”

Tony Kanaan, who had the fastest practice run of the month when he turned a lap at 222.668 mph on Wednesday, is also hopeful that his Honda-powered Team 7-11 car has come out of the practice sessions with something in reserve.

“It s going to be an interesting day - for us and for everyone else,” Kanaan said. “You think you know what you ve got, and you hope you know, but you re just guessing at what everyone else might have. You can be pretty sure they haven t put it all out there so far.”

Marlboro Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. were in the top seven in practice speeds, but team owner Roger Penske knows how the game is played and expects that a fair amount of sand-bagging might have taken place in the buildup to the actual qualifying runs.

“I think the day we want to be the fastest is certainly on race day,” Penske said. “But the pole position is very important to us, as it has been in the past. There are some people who have gone faster than we have during the practice this month, but tomorrow everybody runs by themselves. It s going to be interesting to see how it works out.”

Castroneves, a two-time winner of the 500, said the drivers walk a very fine line in the early practice sessions in an effort to learn the capabilities of their cars without showing the competition too much.

“Every time you drive the car on the edge, it s always going to be difficult,” said Castroneves, who won the pole last year. “As a driver, you want to know exactly what is there, so you want as many practice runs as you can get. But this is Indy, and that means you never know what is going to happen. I think we are in good shape, and obviously, we are going for the pole.”

Hornish, who missed some practice opportunities this week due to illness, said he has seen a variety of strategies at Indy.

“Everyone has had a different agenda this week, so you don t really know where you stack up against the competition,” Hornish said. “We haven t been the fastest this month, but we feel like there s more there - more that we haven t used yet. We feel good about the car in qualifying trim, and we really just have to wait and see what happens.”

Buddy Rice, who raced in his first Indy 500 last year, is up to speed on the way the game is played.

“I know we haven t showed everything yet,” Rice said. “We re going to work on some more stuff to get ready for qualifying. There s a lot of talk about the speeds and who ran what, but a lot of the practice speeds come with drafts, so I don t get too concerned about our speed. The car feels really solid and I think we are happy with our program right now.”

With multiple engines on the rack back in the garage, a number of teams could be holding their best power plants in reserve until the runs that count take place - starting with today s pole qualifying.

“Obviously, everyone will bring out their best available engines on Saturday,” John Faivre of Toyota Racing Development said. “The pole will always be very important here, because if you win it you get to be the headliner for the next two weeks. In terms of the race itself, starting in the first few rows is probably the most important thing.”

There will be as many as 10 Toyota-powered cars in the Indy 500 field this year. Toyota was dominant in its first run at Indy last year as Marlboro Team Penske teammates Gil de Ferran and Castroneves finished one-two with Toyota engines.

Only the pole position will be determined in today s runs, with qualifying for the rest of the field for the Indy 500 continuing tomorrow and on May 23.

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.

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