INDIANAPOLIS — When Ed Carpenter, Carlos Munoz and Helio Castroneves were pushed to the edge Saturday, each remained calm and came up with their best-qualifying runs of the day.
Now they have to do it again one more time Sunday.
The American, Colombian and Brazilian who have celebrated some of their biggest career moments at Indianapolis each made daring runs over the final 80 minutes Saturday to take the top three seeds heading into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 shootout. Carpenter finished first with a four-lap qualifying average of 230.661 mph. Munoz was second at 230.460.
“I wasn’t sure we were going to go 230 in our first run, so I was relieved when we did,” Carpenter said. “But to be honest, I didn’t think going into qualifying I was going to exceed 230.”
Others drivers thought Carpenter would, and it only took one practice lap and one qualifying lap to assuage any doubts. Carpenter, the fifth car on the track, averaged 230.114 then sat around all day as other drivers tried to knock him off the top rung.
Nobody caught him until a rain delay ended at 4:18 p.m. Then in a flurry of speed, Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe knocked Carpenter off the pole, Munoz knocked Hinchcliffe, his teammate, off the pole, and Carpenter retook the pole. He finished the day waiting 65 minutes to see if it would stand.
Normally, the reward for surviving such tension would be celebrating a pole win.
Instead, under the new qualifying format, all Saturday did was assure Carpenter and the other eight top cars of a top-nine starting spot on Indy’s traditional 33-car starting grid. Each of the top nine will have one qualifying run Sunday with the fastest claiming the coveted No. 1 starting spot for the May 25 race.
The success of Carpenter, Munoz and Castroneves was hardly a surprise.
Carpenter, last year’s pole winner, had one of the fastest cars in practice Thursday and Friday. If he wins the pole again Sunday on the track his stepfather, Tony George, once ran, Carpenter would be the second driver since 1990 to earn consecutive poles at Indy. Castroneves also did it in 2009 and 2010.
Munoz, meanwhile, drives for Michael Andretti, whose team has consistently put four or five drivers in the top 10 all week. In 2013, Munoz made his IndyCar debut here and responded by qualifying second, finishing second and walking away as the 500 rookie of the year.
“I was questioning myself, the team, everything before, but as soon as I hit the track I forgot everything,” Munoz said. “The car was really fast, and it’s a shame we wasted that second outing. I think we’re looking strong, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Castroneves owns three 500 wins and three pole wins at Indy <0x2014> all for team owner Roger Penske.
But there was plenty of intrigue, too.
Kurt Busch, the fourth driver to attempt “the double” by racing in Indy and Charlotte on the same day, May 25, nearly made it into the pole shootout, too. He was bumped with 39 minutes left in qualifying when 2000 Indy winner Juan Pablo Montoya surpassed Busch’s speed of 229.960. Busch could have bumped his way back into the fast nine had he not already left for NASCAR’s All-Star race in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was scheduled to be back in Indy for Day 2 when the top 30 starting spots will be determined.
Two other Andretti drivers, Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti, overcame unusual circumstances to reach the shootout. Hinchcliffe was fourth (230.407) despite spending most of this week recovering from a concussion. Andretti actually withdrew his original qualifying time to move into a shorter line, then waved off on another attempt before making it back to No. 6.
France’s Simon Pagenaud, who won the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis last weekend, was seventh.
Carpenter’s teammate, JR Hildebrand, and Sarah Fisher’s driver, Josef Newgarden, also made the shootout, though Chip Ganassi’s four drivers were shut out.
“I think we need to find a little more speed,” Charlie Kimball said. “As a team, the fact that we aren’t in the top nine would prove that. We all work toward that goal, having four of our cars in the top nine. It was a lofty goal, but that was the expectation within the team.”
This time, they’ll all be watching Carpenter and the rest of the gang.
“We came in with a good car and a good package from last year,” Carpenter said. “Like I said, with the second car here, we’ve been able to try some more things than what we did last year.”