It's amazing how much of a difference a year can make.
In 2009, the first day of Indy 500 qualifying had little in the way of surprises and excitement, and the tired format was more distinguished by tradition and procession than action.
The tweaks to the Indy 500 qualifying procedure for 2010 were the subject of much speculation, explanation, and for that matter, a bit of derision from some Brickyard veterans.
But judging by the mammoth crowd on hand for the 2010 Firestone Fast Nine Shootout, the resounding success of the new format will be felt far into the future and could perhaps even become the plotline of a Drew Barrymore-ish chick flick -
How the Brickyard Got Her Groove Back.
The feel-good hit of the week had to be Alex Tagliani and his upstart FAZZT Racing team. Sown from the ashes of the punchline Marty Roth Racing operation, the FAZZT crew showed focus, determination and sheer speed, all of which paid off in a well-deserved second-row starting spot for Tags, who proved both affable and ebullient. Riding the shockwave of his qualifying pace, the Denis Lemieux soundalike Tagliani thrust himself clearly into the role of underdog crowd favorite. The only question remaining for the FAZZT crew is if the impressive performance was enough to shake loose the purse strings of the potential sponsor for a rumored second entry piloted by Bruno Junqueira.
Last year, Helio Castroneves was happy to here, happy to not be in Federal custody and generally happy to be on the pole in a loosey-goosey Brazilliant way. But in 2010, Helio took control of the pole shootout on his very first lap and set the bar so high that other swats at it were virtually laughable. Total world domination.
Penske Racing put three cars in the first two rows amid whispers of sandbagging during the week's practice sessions. Whether Penske has an unfair advantage with their "third spring" technology is moot; all teams can and will use anything at their disposal to annihilate the competition. Lost in much of the discussion about Penske's Empire is the fact that the cars of Helio and Ryan Briscoe are still lacking primary sponsors, so credit Roger Penske for at least keeping the checks flowing with no shortcuts that affected performance.
Dario Franchitti shattered Penske's dream front row with a stellar performance, while his teammate Scott Dixon qualified well but was unspectacular in the shootout portion of the show. Indy-only addition Townsend Bell narrowly missed punching his way into the shootout and will be quite content with 10th on the starting grid if he can withstand Sunday qualifying times.
Obviously, Graham Rahal's career trajectory has not gone according to plan. But a solid outing in the Rahal Letterman Racing entry has the one-off one-car team in row three, albeit with Kim Kardashian on the side of the purple car. A finish, and a good one, in the 500 should raise the future demand for Graham's services.
Perhaps overshadowed by his higher profile teammate Dapper Dan Wheldon, Ed Carpenter put the Fuzzy's Vodka Special right into the shootout and squarely in the role of dark horse candidate to win the big show. Carpenter knows every undulation of the Brickyard, and showed no rust from his relegation to part-time status for the 2010 season. Plus, we mentioned his car was sponsored by Fuzzy's Vodka. Can you imagine the clip of Easy Ed mixing White Russians with the victory circle milk?
Bertrand Baguette has flown so far under the radar that Iannucci's interview with the Belgian rookie pops up second on a Google search under his name. But surviving his time on the bubble will allow BB a crucial extra day to work on race setup and generally get some rest. St. Martin Belgian White Ales and DVDs of In Bruges all around.
Andretti Autosport pulled out a mixed bag, with Marco Andretti the brightest spot of what was an otherwise dismal day that began with Tony Kanaan breaking his string of Top-Six Indy starts and his car with a trip into the wall and ended with Danica Patrick throwing her team under the bus, then backing it up over her car. Ryan Hunter-Reay bumped back into the field, which should leaving him feeling about 100% better than he did at 5:59 PM on Sunday qualifying last year, but John Andretti and Kanaan both will have to post times Sunday.
Danica Patrick's lackluster month was punctuated with the 23rd spot on the grid and some choice words for her team and car in a P.A. system interview after the session which led to boos cascading from the stands. Danica's public approval rating seems hovering around the BP level, but that could take off some intense media pressure for the race itself.
Gearbox woes aborted Paul Tracy's first qualifying attempt, and the speed Tracy showed on Fast Friday disappeared overnight. Another qualifying attempt later in the afternoon left the frustrated Tracy pulling out tufts of his remaining hair.
AJ Foyt Racing saw the cars of both Vitor Meira and AJ Foyt IV bumped from the field in the final hour of open qualifying. Not an auspicious sign for a team that is habitually one of the best of the rest at Indy.
Takuma Sato said sayonara to his Lotus in the morning practice session in spectacular fashion that left a trail of Speedy Dry leading out of turn two for the duration of the day. The KV Racing crew will have to Humpty Dumpty the car back together for Sato, if he is indeed cleared to drive.
Tony Kanaan's uncharacteristic shunt punctuated his day in the early afternoon, and as mentioned, ended a streak of Top-10 starts dating back to 2002. While speed should not be a problem for Kanaan Sunday, the margin for error has shrunk considerably.
Milka Duno is going to have a hard road to the field, and as an easy target for criticism, the less that is said, the better.
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