[Images: Tom Strattman, Mike Groll, Darron Cummings, Jeff Roberson, Steve Metz (AP), Chris Howell, Nick Laham, Jonathan Ferrey, Robert Laberge, Chris Graythen (Getty Images)]
For the IndyCar Series participants, the importance of the Indy 500 can't be overstated. The whole month of May is given over to it, with qualifying spread out over a couple of weekends leading up to race day. Pole Day sets the front of the field two weeks before the run for the milk, while Bump Day settles the rest of the grid back to the 33rd spot. For 2010, qualifying held a few surprises, but also many expected results.
While female drivers have long been part of Indy lore, this year's race had five different ladies lined up to qualify. When four made it into the field, it became a record for female Indy 500 qualifiers. It certainly wasn't easy going for the women, though, nor for the other 29 racers who made the cut. A total of 24 drivers made it in on day 1 of qualifying, with the remaining nine spots filled on Bump Day a week later.
Helio Castroneves (Team Penske Car No. 3) summed up the spirit of Indy on Pole Day when he gave up his second place qualifying spot to make another run at the pole. The "Dancing With the Stars" winner put his foot down Saturday and proved he's still the one to beat, topping 228 mph on two of his four laps, for an average of 227.970 mph, enough to earn his fourth career Indianapolis 500 pole. The other eight drivers in the new pole "shootout" format slugged it out for the next eight spots, with Penske teammate Will Power (No. 12) and Target Chip Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti (No. 10) ending up second and third respectively to fill the front row.
To show how precarious qualifying can be, 2004 IndyCar Series champ Tony Kanaan (Andretti Autosport No. 11), was one of several drivers to crash on Pole Day, not making it into the field until Bump Day. It took a bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work by his five-car team for Kanaan to make it into the field, but he had to start at the very back of the pack, in 33rd position. Characteristically upbeat, Kanaan joked that at least the Brazilians had the field covered, with fellow countryman Castroneves at the front.
At the end of Pole Day, Ryan Briscoe (Penske No. 6), Alex Tagliani (FAZZT Race Team No. 77) and Franchitti's Target Chip Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon (No. 9), the 2008 winner, were in Row 2. Behind them in Row 3 it was Graham Rahal, driving the No. 30 The Quick Trim/Rahal Letterman Racing entry for his dad, '86 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. Graham was joined by Ed Carpenter (No. 20 Panther/Vision Fuzzy's Vodka) and Hideki Mutoh (No. 06 Formula Dream/Panasonic Newman/Haas Racing).
Row 4 featured Townsend Bell (Sam Schmidt/Ganassi Racing No. 99), Justin Wilson (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing No. 22) and Raphael Matos (de Ferran Dragon Racing No. 2). Behind them in Row 5 were Mario Moraes (KV Racing Technology No. 32), Davey Hamilton (de Ferran Dragon Racing No. 21) and Mike Conway (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing No. 24). Row 6: Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport No. 26), Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport No. 37) and Dan Wheldon (Panther Racing No. 4). Row 7: E.J. Viso (KV Racing Technology No. 8), Tomas Scheckter (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing No. 23) and the fastest female in the field, Ana Beatriz (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing No. 25). Row 8: Simona De Silvestro (Team Stargate Worlds/HVM No. 78), Danica Patrick (Andretti Autosport No. 7) who was startled when she was greeted by boos at the track today, and Bertrand Baguette (Conquest Racing No. 36).
Series veteran Paul Tracy was among several drivers with varying gaps in their driving resumes to return for a shot at making the 94th 500 this year on Bump Day. He came up short, but remained professional and hopeful for possible future rides. Jacques Lazier had similar luck, failing to make the field while subbing for A.J. Foyt IV. Former winner Bruno Junqueira was much luckier, finding himself on the inside of row 9 at the end of the day.
At the end of a dramatic Bump Day, the final three rows were set, with Bruno Junqueira, Alex Lloyd and Mario Romancini on row nine; John Andretti, Sarah Fisher and Vitor Meira holding down the 10th row; and Takuma Sato and rookie Sebastian Saavedra joining Kanaan at the tail end of the field on row 11.
The field was set, the flyovers were done, Jim Nabors had sung, and the action was finally about to start when the most famous words in motorsports were spoken by Grand Marshal Mari Hulman George: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your engines!" And with that, the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 was underway.
When honorary starter Jack Nicholson waved the green, the pack of 33 cars swept through, with Castroneves leading the way. By Turn 2, the race saw its first incident when the oldest driver in the field, Davey Hamilton, spun into the inside wall, ending his day. As the pace car came out, it was Dario Franchitti who found himself at the front of the pack, having apparently slipped past Helio just prior to the yellow. At the other end of the field, Tony Kanaan timed the start perfectly and charged past 8 cars in half a lap before he had to slow down.
Back under green on lap 6, drivers were going four-wide to gain position. As they always say, though, it's a long race, and although you can't win a race in Turn 1, you can definitely lose it. Two laps later, Bruno Junquiera was forced to park it way too early. By the time the green came out again on lap 12, a full 80 percent of the race had been run under yellow – Not a good omen.
The first round of pit stops were wrapping up around Lap 38 and as the cars came back out, it appeared that Will Power had picked up a little extra equipment on his Dallara. An internal spring from the fuel hose remained attached to the filler when the hose was pulled away, creating a dangerous situation, as the slinky could have broken away and damaged another car or injured another driver. Visions of Felipe Massa came to mind. While the black flag came out, telling him he had to pit to have it removed, parts of the spring broke off and brought out the third yellow of the day.
When the green fell again on lap 43, Dario was out front, followed by Castroneves, Matos, Briscoe, Carpenter, Dixon, and the rest of the field. Tony Kanaan had moved up more than 20 spots from the start and was now running twelfth, closing in on the leaders.
On Lap 65, John Andretti, who had been running 26th following a black flag for blocking Dan Wheldon earlier, was up into the wall coming out of turn 2. It proved a good time for everyone to make their second stops. With almost half the field in, many teams used the opportunity to gain position. A couple of teams pushed a bit too
hard, as Scott Dixon and Raphael Matos left with only three wheels secured. Matos spun a few boxes down, creating chaos for the other drivers trying to exit pit lane. Everybody else seemed to get through the melee unscathed, but it was definitely a pucker moment for a few of them.
Coming out of the pits, Franchitti and Castroneves were still 1-2, but close behind was the surging Kanaan. He came out in fourth, but when the field went back to green on Lap 72, he slipped back to fifth as Ed Carpenter squeezed by. Carpenter's run was almost as impressive as Tony's to this point, the veteran driver having sat out several races with sponsorship problems dating back to last year. Before they could go at it, though, the yellow had flown once again. Apparently the pit lane incident had upset the car of Matos a bit more than the team realized, and he was hard into the wall. It looked to be the worst crash of the day, but thankfully Raphael was able to walk away.
They were back to green on Lap 80, with the front three of Franchitti, Castroneves and Briscoe pulling away from fourth place Carpenter and the rest of the field. Back in the pack, Danica had moved up to 16th, putting her at the top of the filly class, with De Silvestro in 18th, Fisher in 21st and Beatriz a lap down in 26th.
At the halfway mark, Franchitti was still out front, but found himself held up by Graham Rahal, who was trying (successfully) to keep on the lead lap following a black flag penalty for blocking earlier on. A few laps later it was Vitor Meira's turn to meet the wall leaving Turn 2. The damage wasn't bad enough to stop the car, and Meira made it into the pits, as did Rahal, who was already headed in before the yellow came out. That gave him a chance to make up almost a whole lap and stay well ahead of the leaders who had been threatening to lap him. Ed Carpenter wasn't quite as lucky. He didn't make the cutoff before the yellow and had to stay on track until the pits reopened. It wouldn't have been a problem if he had a bit more fuel in the tank. He circled slowly and sputtered into the pits. He got back out but had to relinquish his fourth place spot, dropping back to 19th.
Almost everyone else pitted on the next lap, and the race out of the pits found Kanaan right behind Franchitti and Castroneves. Tomas Sheckter stayed out during that round of stops and found himself leading a few laps. The front two slipped past Sheckter pretty quickly, but it wasn't Dario and Helio, it was Dario and Tony Kanaan. TK had moved from last to second by lap 115, showing he at least had enough car under him to make things interesting during the second half of the race.
From that point it felt like we might get a large chunk of laps in without another yellow. Franchitti was apparently coasting out front, with Kanaan well back in second. On Lap 143, Dario had to pit, however, and while he was in, the team made a couple of adjustments. Were they tempting fate? Right behind was Helio, who also took a wing adjustment, but he killed his engine trying to leave, costing him precious seconds while it was restarted. The other leaders trickled through the pits, and then, just before the three-quarter distance mark, it was Ryan Briscoe's turn to bring out the yellow. He'd been quietly stalking the leaders all day and looked poised to make a run at the end, but cold tires spelled disaster for him coming out of Turn 4.
The green came back out on Lap 157, just past the point where most drivers feel it's time to make the final push. On lap 160 it was Franchitti, Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Scheckter, Wheldon, Hunter-Reay, Dixon... and another yellow. This time it was the youngest
driver in the field, 19-year-old rookie Sebastian Saavedra. A few more laps under yellow meant most of the cars could make one final pit stop and dash to the green when the pace car came back in. That put some extra pressure on pit crews to get their drivers out in a hurry. The predictable collisions didn't manifest themselves, fortunately, but there were several hairy moments.
When the field went green again it was an unfamiliar call: Dario was back a few spots, making us wonder whether his car could do as well in traffic as it had out front all day. Sophomore Mike Conway was now the leader. Did he have enough to hold off the big teams over the last 30 laps? Conway hadn't pitted with everybody else, and the question of whether he had enough fuel to make it to the finish was answered a lap later when he headed to the pits.
That gave Justin Wilson the lead, but with everyone concerned about fuel economy, it was anybody's game. With just eight laps to go, Helio Castroneves was in for a splash and go, but he cooked his tires slowing for the pits and ended up having them replaced during the stop. Wilson pitted for fuel as well, which gave the resurgent Franchitti the lead ahead of Kanaan, who had to stop himself with only five to go, giving second to Dan Wheldon. Dario was hurting too, though, and after Kanaan dropped out of the chase, Franchitti had to slow to a snail's pace to conserve, allowing Wheldon to close the gap. Unfortunately, a multi-car accident brought out the yellow flag on the last lap, meaning Dario simply had to limp around to take his second Indy 500. He did so with no incidents, which made Chip Ganassi the only team owner to win both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 in the same year.
The replays of that final lap crash showed a dramatic view of Mike Conway going airborne over Hunter-Reay, before returning to the ground upside down. Although it took a while to extricate Conway, he was eventually pulled out and waved to the crowd, showing he wasn't seriously injured. [UPDATE: Conway's leg was fractured] The finishing order had to be sorted out due to the accident, but there was no doubt about who would pull into Victory Lane for the traditional milk toast. Wheldon, Lloyd, Dixon, Patrick, Marco Andretti, Wilson, Power, Castroneves and Tagliani filled in the second through tenth spots in the finishing order.
It was a dramatic finish to a crash-filled race, that ended much as it had finished, with Dario out front. The 94th Indianapolis 500 was in the books, the IndyCar Series already packing up, ready to head to Texas for the Firestone 550K on June 5th.