May 21, 2016 8:38 PM
Hinchcliffe takes top seed in Indy qualifying with late push
The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) James Hinchcliffe never fretted about posting the best four-lap average in qualifying at Indianapolis on Saturday.
All he wanted was a chance to win the pole Sunday.
The Canadian driver who nearly died last year from a life-threatening leg injury sustained during practice for the 500, survived two challenges in the final 25 minutes and barely held onto the top seed with a speed of 230.946 mph. Ryan Hunter-Reay was second at 230.805 on the next-to-last run in the session. Team Penske's Will Power came in third at 230.736.
"Our first run, that was the hardest qualifying attempt I'd ever done at the speedway here," Hinchcliffe said. "When you kind of take a step back and let yourself think about it a little bit, it does feel good."
To complete his comeback with a pole-winning run for the May 29 centennial race, Hinchcliffe must do it all over Sunday.
The nine fastest drivers from Saturday will compete in a late afternoon pole shootout, and if it resembles anything like the first day of qualifications, fans could be in for a real treat.
The lead changed twice in the final 40 minutes, nearly changed two more times in the last 25 minutes and included Russia's Mikhail Aleshin bumping his way into the shootout on the final run of the day. Hinchcliffe and Aleshin are teammates with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Hunter-Reay made the top nine with a daring run that knocked out teammate Marco Andretti, the son of Andretti Autosport's team owner, Michael, just moments after Andretti had bumped out Hunter-Reay.
"That was hectic," the 2014 Indy winner said after finishing second. "I have some bad memories at this place being right as the gun goes off. I had to keep reminding myself, 'It's only for the top nine. Everything's good.'"
It also was a challenging day.
Another Andretti driver, Townsend Bell, led most of the afternoon and his 230.452 and held up until three-time 500 champion Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, went 230.500. Then, after American Graham Rahal made his second attempt, Hinchcliffe drove onto the track and moved past Castroneves.
The biggest problem might have been the weather.
Rain delayed practice by more than 4 1/2 hours, and when the cars finally made it onto the 2.5-mile oval, the conditions were totally different. When the sun came out, the track temperature warmed up and the wind gusts began, drivers found themselves fighting to stay on the track.
"I was really holding on from Lap to Lap 2 and it was worse on Lap 3, I thought, 'I wish this was the last one,'" said Scott Dixon, the four-time series champ and 2015 Indy pole winner who drives for Target Chip Ganassi.
He wasn't the only one struggling.
English driver Pippa Mann, of Dale Coyne Racing, crashed in qualifying and another English driver, Max Chilton, who drives for Ganassi crashed in practice. Both were released from the infield medical center and were cleared to drive but did not return to the track.
Four of the six former Indy winners including Dixon, of New Zealand, and Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya, the defending champion from Colombia, also missed the shootout.
Hinchcliffe, on the other hand, hung on long enough to give himself one more chance.
"It doesn't mean much today," he said. "It's bragging rights. It gets us into the fast nine."
WHO'S HOT: Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. Each team put three drivers in the shootout. Penske has Power (third), Castroneves (fourth) and points leader Simon Pagenaud of France (ninth). Michael Andretti has Hunter-Reay (second), Bell (fifth) and Carlos Munoz of Colombia (eighth). Andretti's other drivers, rookie Alexander Rossi (10th) and Marco Andretti (11th), just missed out.
WHO'S NOT: Chip Ganassi Racing. None of the four cars in Ganassi's stable made the shootout, and the only driver to make the top 15 was Dixon (13th). All 33 drivers will have their Saturday times wiped out Sunday.
HONDA OR CHEVY: Again, Honda overpowered Chevrolet at the top of the speed chart. The top two spots both went to Honda drivers, though four of the next seven spots went to Chevy drivers.
THE NEW AND THE OLD: American Josef Newgarden, of Ed Carpenter Racing, wound up sixth in qualifying with an average of 230.229. The 25-year-old will appear in his third straight shootout Sunday and his fourth in five 500 career Indy starts.
UP NEXT: Second day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500. Practice begins at noon. Each car outside the top nine will get one qualifying attempt starting at 2:45 p.m. The pole shootout begins at 5 p.m.