INDIANAPOLIS - If there were any doubts about what the strategy might be when Sam Hornish Jr. teams up with Roger Penske at the Indianapolis 500 this year, the answer was revealed in yesterday s qualifying for the pole position in the race.
Hornish, the northwest Ohio driver who has twice won the Indy Racing League series championship, had the opportunity to play it safe, post a decent qualifying speed, and then begin final preparations for the May 30 race.
Or he could roll the dice, take a few risks, and make a run at starting on the pole.
“We could be consistent and stick with what we had, or we could decide to go out there and see if we could go a little faster,” Hornish said. “We were at a crossroads, and I wanted to go for it - I wanted to win the pole.”
That meant tweaking something that wasn t really broken - Hornish s car. And the minute adjustments that were intended to nurse a bit more speed from the car might have actually stolen a little. Instead of winning the pole, Hornish ended up 11th with an average speed of 220.180 miles per hour and will start in the middle of Row Four.
The pole went to Buddy Rice who qualified at 222.024 mph.
“The tough thing is that I know it could have been better and we could have been faster than we were,” Hornish said. “I don t know why I am so disappointed, but I think we ll be OK. You can win this race from anywhere. I wish it would have turned out differently, but I ll forget about all of this if we win the race.”
Hornish, who is running his first Indy 500 as part of the Penske team after joining forces with Marlboro Team Penske following last season, said that he initially balked at suggesting the more aggressive approach before Penske let him make the call.
“I didn t think it was my place to say which road we d go down, but Roger left it in my hands,” Hornish said. “He said we could stick with what we had, or we could go out there and try and be faster. He said that sometimes it s better to go for it rather than just take the easy way out. That s what we did - we went for it.”
Only the top 22 positions in the 33-car field were filled yesterday, and qualifying for the race continues today.
Rice, who got the opportunity to drive for Rahal-Letterman Racing when regular driver Kenny Brack was unable to start this season as he continues to recover from an injury suffered in a crash last year, has made the most of it. He won the pole in the first race of the season at Homestead, and has since been given a full-time deal with the team.
“It s unbelievable to put the car up front, but that s obviously what I was brought here to do when I came to sub for Kenny, “ Rice said. “I wasn t sure we were going to run 222, but we knew we had enough to win the pole.”
Rice said the top run of the day was accomplished with a calculated yet ambitious approach, and a little luck. It was overcast and the temperature never reached 60 degrees, so a lot of teams scrambled to adjust their cars to the cooler conditions.
“The biggest thing that I ve noticed in qualifying is that it s too easy to outsmart yourself and go down the wrong path,” Rice said. “I asked my engineer this morning what we were going to do - were we going for the pole, or not. We went for it, and everything just worked out perfectly for us. It was that kind of day.”
The guy who had the greatest need to be fast - Robby Gordon - ended up as one of the slower qualifiers at 216.522 mph, placing him 18th. Gordon, who plans to race both the Indy 500 and the NEXTEL Cup Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, had another tight double in the works yesterday.
Gordon had to qualify here, then take a helicopter from the infield to the airport, and then jump on a private jet to Richmond, Va., for last night s NEXTEL Cup race. A mandatory driver s meeting in Richmond started at 4:30 p.m. and Gordon, who left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about 90 minutes before that, needed to be there to protect his sixth position in qualifying for that race.
“I m very disappointed - I thought we d run better than that,” said Gordon as he rushed off for the approximate one-hour flight to Richmond. “This will probably be our worst Indianapolis 500 starting spot, and that s disappointing. If we didn t have to leave for Richmond, we would have waved off that run for sure and gone again. But we couldn t do that because of the circumstances.”
Gordon raced in the Busch Series event at Richmond on Friday night; finishing 19th before flying back to Indianapolis for the 500 qualifying.
The track, cleaned by the rains that all but wiped out Friday s practice session and then delayed the start of yesterday s schedule by about two hours, proved a bit slick for some of the drivers. Bryan Herta and Felipe Giaffone both spun out and made contact with the wall early in the qualifying, but neither was seriously injured.
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