INDIANAPOLIS — Everything seems to be lining up for Michael Andretti this May.
His five drivers have taken turns atop the practice speed charts all week and, when series officials gave the engines a boost Friday, E.J. Viso and Marco Andretti were still on top.
The team owner has the defending series champ, the only two-time IndyCar winner this season, a hot-shot rookie who has been among the fastest drivers all week and his son, Marco, who is bursting with confidence now that he’s back on his favorite tracks, the ovals.
All these guys have to do is hold onto their edge when Indianapolis 500 qualifying begins today.
“I think as a team, we’re quite comfortable with our speeds,” Marco Andretti said. “I think there are five of us in the running for the pole but as far as the favorite – there’s going to be a lot of factors tomorrow.”
The Andretti drivers haven’t had any trouble dealing with the normal obstacles on Indy’s 2.5-mile oval.
When it was cool and windy Sunday, rookie Carlos Munoz of Colombia, posted the fastest lap of the day.
As temperatures warmed up, Marco Andretti jumped to the top. Canadian James Hinchcliffe kept the Andretti streak going Tuesday. Viso posted the fast lap Friday in much warmer conditions. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar champ and winner this year on a road course in Alabama, was the only Andretti driver not to hold the top spot at the end of a practice session this week.
Viso joined the club Friday, vaulting to the top with a lap of 229.537 mph. Marco was next at 228.754 with Munoz third at 228.520, a practice session that was shortened by a little more than three hours because of rain.
“We have a stronger car today than what we started the week with,” said Viso, who is from Venezuela. “It’s all about finding as much mechanical grip as possible and when it comes time to trim it, you should be in a good position if you do your homework.”
The Andrettis have aced every test they’ve taken this week thanks in part to the strong Chevrolet engines, which dominated Indy’s qualifying last year and the speed charts this week. Chevys also have won three of this year’s four races.
That’s not good news for the other 28 drivers trying to make the starting field.
Who could challenge the Andretti teammates?
Team Penske has more Indy 500 wins (15) and Indy poles (17) than any team in history. It also has three-time winner Helio Castroneves, a four-time Indy pole-sitter from Brazil, and Australia’s Will Power, who made a big move up the speed chart to finish fourth in Friday’s practice with a best lap of 228.401. Rookie AJ Allmendinger goes into Saturday with the seventh fastest lap of the week at 227.237 and has been the most consistently fast driver in the bunch.
Castroneves’ best lap, 226.988, put him 11th as he begins his fourth quest for a record-tying fourth Indy win.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag because you work on race setups for the most part until Friday. I think that we’re at least in the ball game. I don’t think anybody’s a lock in,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “There’s a couple of guys that could surprise people tomorrow in terms of the pole or the top nine. You’re never too confident here.”
Who else could be in the mix?
Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand, the 2011 Indy runner-up, and Spain’s Oriol Servia, whose Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team is scheduled to disband after the May 26 race. Both surged Friday. Hildebrand was fifth in practice at 227.549 with Servia sixth at 227.237.
Three-time race winner Dario Franchitti, a Scot driving for Target Chip Ganassi, and points leader Takuma Sato, the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race who is with A.J. Foyt’s team, have been the fastest Honda drivers this week. But they could mount a challenge Saturday because nobody knows what to expect after heavy rains washed away much of the rubber on the track. Had it stayed dry, Marco Andretti said fans might have seen a lap in excess of 230.
That’s the number his father, Michael, thought it would take to win the pole before practice began. It’s unclear now.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be, I think it could be about 228,” Castroneves said.
If all goes as planned, the top 24 starting spots will be locked in Saturday, with the nine fastest drivers advancing to a 90-minute shootout in which each car must make at least one attempt. The final nine spots for the 33-car starting grid would be filled Sunday.
But the forecast is calling for isolated or scattered showers all afternoon Saturday, which threatens to wipe out the shootout and add pressure to making fast runs before the shootout is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m.
Sato got one big advantage – being the third car in qualifying line. Allmendinger will go out sixth.
Hinchcliffe drew the No. 14 spot and will be the first Andretti driver to make a qualifying attempt. He will be followed by Viso, Hunter-Reay, Munoz and Marco, who drew the No. 59 spot.
“You don’t want to be conservative on your first run because that could be the pole run if there isn’t a nine-car shootout,” Marco Andretti said. “So you have to go for it in the first run.”
And the way things have been going, the first three rows could have Andretti’s signature all over it.
“Having team cars up there all but one day bodes well,” Hinchcliffe said. “As a team, I think we’re confident, and it’s going to be tough because like I said there’s a lot of fast cars that are going to be going for that fast nine.”